BERLIN -- Leaders from the United States and Europe urged calm yesterday as violent protests ignited by cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed spread in Islamic countries and beyond. Thousands of Muslims rampaged through the streets of Beirut, setting fire to the Danish Embassy, torching European flags, and trashing a Christian neighborhood.
''It is a critical situation; it is very serious," said Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller of Denmark after urging Danes to leave Lebanon, the latest scene of fury over the satiric drawings of Islam's holiest figure, which originally appeared in a Danish newspaper but have since been reprinted in papers across Europe.
''Enough is enough," Moeller said on Danish radio. ''It has become more than a case about the drawings. Now there are forces that want a confrontation between cultures."
Other protests flared yesterday from London to New Zealand as Muslims' rage spread to nearly every corner of the world.
Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany urged respect for religion and free speech. ''Freedom of religion and freedom of the press are great liberties, [but] those who use them must use them with care," he said.
At a conference on international security in Munich, US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick said that the cartoons were ''undoubtedly offensive" to many Muslims, but that freedom of expression is as important a value in democratic societies as freedom of religion and that the two ideas have to find harmony.
Zoellick also criticized Muslim leaders for speaking out more forcefully against pen-and-ink drawings than against political violence committed by religious extremists that has claimed thousands of lives in recent years.
''I hope that some who raise their voice about the cartoons will also raise other issues, including beheadings, bombings, and attacking other faiths," he said, referring to deadly assaults on aid workers, journalists, and ordinary civilians that have become features of everyday life in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, and other trouble areas. Such acts are rarely condemned in the Islamic world.
Meanwhile, moderate Muslims condemned protesters who have called for ''a 9/11 against Europe" and other violence. But even moderates insisted deeper blame for the escalating disturbances lies with Western political ideals that place press freedoms and other secular liberties above respect for religion. Jyllands- Posten, the Danish newspaper that commissioned the 12 cartoons, did so as a challenge to local Muslims who had discouraged illustrations of Mohammed from appearing in a children's book.
Islamic tradition, known as Hadith, forbids any images of the Mohammed, the Arab founder of the faith in the seventh century. The cartoons, which may seem like standard political satire to many Western eyes, are perceived by many Muslims as blasphemous mockery of Mohammed, and, in a wider sense, a display of contempt for the world's second-largest faith.
''Yes, the violence is clearly being manipulated by Muslim extremists," said Inayat Bunglawala, spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, which represents about 400 mosques and Muslim community groups. ''But that doesn't change the genuine hurt and anguish felt by nearly all Muslims.
''This controversy may burn for a very long time unless there is a clear, unequivocal apology from the newspaper editors who have insulted Islam and insulted Muslims," Bunglawala said in an interview from London.
Jyllands-Posten issued a statement last week expressing regret that Muslims have taken offense and that Danish lives have been endangered, but stopped short of apologizing for publishing the 12 drawings. As protests exploded, newspapers in Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Switzerland, New Zealand, Norway, and Poland reprinted the caricatures as a show of support for free expression.
News media in Britain and the United States have not reprinted the cartoons, the most controversial of which shows Mohammed wearing a terrorist's sputtering bomb instead of a turban. CNN has shown digitally-blurred images that are not recognizable. In an editorial, Britain's Independent stated: ''There is a right to exercise an uncensored pen. But there is also a right for people to exist in a secular pluralist society without feeling alienated, threatened, and routinely derided as many Muslims do now."
Demonstrations erupted yesterday in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and New Zealand, where 700 Muslims marched through the streets of Auckland to protest publication of the cartoons in two newspapers in the Pacific nation.
The worst violence was in Beirut, where the Danish Embassy was set ablaze, rocks were hurled at a Maronite Catholic church, and windows were smashed at the offices of the Lebanese Red Cross. Police fired shots into the air and used water cannons and tear gas to turn back protesters waving religious flags and shouting ''Allah Akhbar" -- God is greatest.
Iran recalled its ambassador to Denmark, following the lead of Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Libya, which have symbolically severed diplomatic ties with Denmark to protest the caricatures. In Afghanistan, thousands of demonstrators in the city of Mehtarlam burned Danish flags and urged that the newspaper editors be prosecuted for defaming Mohammed.
In the West Bank, Palestinian gunmen defaced a French-run educational center in the city of Nablus.
In Iraq, more than 1,000 protesters gathered in Ramadi and unfurled a banner that read, ''Iraq must end political, diplomatic, cultural, and economic relations with European countries that supported the Danish insult against Prophet Mohammed and all Muslims."
On Saturday, demonstrators in Damascus set fire to the Danish and Norwegian embassies, damaged the Swedish Embassy, and tried to storm the French mission but were held off by riot police. The United States and the Scandinavian countries expressed anger that Syria did not do more to protect the diplomatic sites. ''The violence now, particularly the burning of Danish missions abroad, is absolutely outrageous and unjustified," Foreign Minister Jack Straw of Britain told reporters yesterday in London. ''What we want to see is this matter being calmed down."
Material from the Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.