WASHINGTON (AP) - The Obama administration was caught by surprise by the ferocity of the Sept. 11 attack against the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the ambassador and three other Americans. Now it is bracing for another potential eruption of violent demonstrations in parts of the Muslim world after Friday's weekly prayers - traditionally a time of protest in the Middle East and North Africa.
Angry demonstrations over an anti-Islam video already have occurred in Egypt and Yemen, and officials theorize well-armed Libyan extremists hijacked a similar protest in Benghazi, where several Libyan security guards also were killed. The U.S. put all of its diplomatic missions overseas on high alert, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered an explicit denunciation of the video as the administration sought to pre-empt further turmoil at its embassies and consulates.
"The United States government had absolutely nothing to do with this video," she said before a meeting with the foreign minister of Morocco at the State Department. "We absolutely reject its content and message."
"To us, to me personally, this video is disgusting and reprehensible," Clinton said. "It appears to have a deeply cynical purpose: to denigrate a great religion and to provoke rage."
In Yemen's capital of Sanaa, hundreds of protesters chanting "death to America" and "death to Israel" stormed the U.S. Embassy compound and burned the American flag on Thursday.
Yemen's president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, quickly apologized to the U.S. and vowed to track down the culprits, just as Libya's president did. Egypt's Islamist President Mohammad Morsi, who had been slow to speak out on Tuesday's assault on the embassy in Cairo, promised Thursday that his government would not allow attacks on diplomatic missions.
The crowd in Sanaa swarmed over embassy's entrance gate. Men with iron bars smashed the thick, bullet-proof glass windows of the entrance building while others clambered up the wall. Some ripped the embassy's sign off the outer wall.
In Cairo, protesters clashed Thursday with police near the U.S. Embassy. Police used tear gas to disperse he protesters and the two sides pelted each other with rocks. But unlike Tuesday, when protesters climbed the embassy's walls and several of them breached its grounds, police kept the protesters away from the compound.
U.S. officials said they suspect the attack at the Benghazi consulate, which had also been the target of an unsuccessful attack in June, may have been only tangentially related to the film.
They also stressed there had been no advance warning or intelligence to suggest a threat in Libya that would warrant boosting security, even on the 11th anniversary of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"As we did with all of our missions overseas, in advance of the September 11 anniversary and as we do every year, we did evaluate the threat stream and we determined that the security at Benghazi was appropriate for what we knew," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
Egypt's ruling Muslim Brotherhood called for demonstrations after Friday prayers as did authorities in Iran and the Gaza strip. Large protests were expected in Baghdad and Iraq's second-largest city, Basra, as well as Amman, Jordan. Israel was stepping up security in anticipation of demonstrations after Muslim prayers.
The White House said it was prepared for more protests but stressed any violence would be unjustified.
"It is important to note that as these protests are taking place in different countries around the world, responding to the movie, that Friday, tomorrow, has historically been a day when there are protests in the Muslim world," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters in Colorado. "And we are watching very closely for developments that could lead to more protests. We anticipate that they may continue."
While rejecting the content of the video, Clinton stressed that no matter how offensive it is, the film cannot be used as an excuse for violence like that seen in Egypt, where a mob breached the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Wednesday, and in Yemen, where demonstrators tried to storm the embassy compound in Sana on Thursday.
"There is no justification, none at all, for responding to this video with violence," Clinton said. "We condemn the violence that has resulted in the strongest terms. ... It is especially wrong for violence to be directed against diplomatic missions. These are places whose very purpose is peaceful: to promote better understanding across countries and cultures."