Islamabad, Pakistan • A Cabinet minister on Saturday offered a $100,000 reward for the death of the person behind the anti-Islam video made in the United States that has roiled Muslims around the world, drawing fresh criticism of the Pakistan government's handling of the crisis.
A day after violent protests paralyzed Pakistan's largest cities, leaving 23 people dead and more than 200 injured, Railways Minister Ahmed Ghulam Bilour said he would personally finance a bounty aimed at the maker of the crude, low-budget video at the core of the controversy.
Furthermore, Bilour told reporters in his home city, Peshawar, he would approve of al-Qaida or Taliban militants carrying out the assassination. "I also invite Taliban and al-Qaida brothers to be partners in this noble deed," Bilour said, according to news reports.
His comments offered fresh ammunition to critics of the coalition government, which declared a public holiday Friday to facilitate what it hoped would be peaceful protests, calling it a "Day of Love for the Prophet Muhammad."
"Pakistan was truly leaderless on Friday," said Maleeha Lodhi, a former ambassador to the United States. "By ceding space to the mob, the government actually joined the mob. These statements only reinforce how playing to the gallery has very dangerous, long-term consequences for the country."
Bilour said he recognized that it was illegal to offer an incitement to murder, but said that if any court found him guilty, he was "ready to be hanged in the name of the Prophet Muhammad."
He is a member of the Awami National Party, a Pashtun nationalist party that is a minority partner in the coalition government led by President Asif Ali Zardari's Pakistan People's Party. It was unclear whether the government intended to punish Bilour; the minister for information could not be reached Saturday evening.
Bilour did not name the target of his bounty, but it was widely presumed to be Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, 55, who lives in the U.S. and has been linked to the 14-minute video, described as a trailer for a movie named "Innocence of Muslims."
Nakoula has not confirmed reports of his involvement, but he has been questioned by police near his residence in Cerritos, 20 miles south of Los Angeles. He was not arrested.
In Pakistan, Bilour's offer was taken more as a piece of political grandstanding than a serious threat. A day earlier, at least six people had died during protests in Peshawar, and rioters destroyed property that included a cinema belonging to Bilour's brother, Aziz.
Bilour's assistant, Zulfikar Ahmed, said he had made the offer to encourage Pakistanis to divert their anger toward the root of the problem.
"It is not for us to destroy our country and our own poor people. That's why he said this," Ahmed said by telephone.
Ironically, Bilour's party has suffered many attacks at the hands of the Taliban, which has killed dozens of his party members in recent years.
Pakistan Railways, the state-owned company Bilour presides over, is deep in debt and marred by frequent strikes, poor service and train crashes.
His statement coincided with fresh protests, albeit peaceful ones. Several thousand people, including hundreds of women, marched outside Parliament in Islamabad, chanting "punishment for those who humiliated our prophet."
In Lahore, hard-line Islamist groups gathered outside the U.S. Consulate chanting slogans about "jihad."
Bilour's statement came at an awkward time for the government because it coincided with a visit to the United States by Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar.
After a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Friday, Khar said the violent protests "cannot be tolerated."
On Capitol Hill, where Khar met last week with members of the foreign policy and intelligence committees, lawmakers responded warily to Pakistan's decision to allow the protests that later turned violent.
"Pakistan knows we're watching very closely, and how they handle these protests will have an on impact on our relationship," said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who is on the House Intelligence Committee.
Meanwhile protests continued to roil other parts of the subcontinent. In Bangladesh, clashes between Islamist groups and the police left over 100 people wounded after the protesters tried to march through the capital, Dhaka, in defiance of a ban on demonstrations that has been in force since Friday afternoon.
In Pakistan, a group of Christians in the northwestern city of Mardan said they would hold their Sunday service on the road to protest the destruction of their church during Friday's riots.