The rallies coincided with a general strike observed over unrelated political demands.

Soon after Friday prayers in the Kashmir Valley, Muslims poured into the streets of the summer capital Srinagar and such neighbouring towns as Budgam, Yashgam and Magam to raise anti-American slogans.

Kargil, located close to the de facto border with Pakistan in the east, witnessed the biggest anti-US protests, with thousands of residents taking part in a street march, according to reports from the predominantly Shia town.

In Srinagar's Zadibal locality, protesters wearing bandanas put up black flags on lamp posts and rooftops. However, riot police swung into action when a surging crowd began a march on the local office of the United Nations Military Observers for India and Pakistan group.

Kashmiri men march in Srinagar
to demand end to US army action

Teargas canisters and rifle shots were fired over the heads of the marchers when other tactics failed to break up the rally, witnesses said.

Overlapping protests

A similar situation arose a mile away, outside Srinagar's famed main mosque. The clash there, between protesters and policemen, resulted in injuries to at least five persons, according to medical sources.

In any event, shops and other businesses were closed in the valley and public transport off the roads in response to a strike call from the Kashmiri Lawyers' Association to condemn what they called human-rights violations by India security forces and the tendency of law-enforcement agencies to "dishonour" judicial orders.

The strike call was endorsed by several political organisations and trade union bodies.

Some other Kashmiri groups, mainly religious ones, saw the occasion as an opportunity to hold anti-US rallies over the bloodshed in Iraq.

Against this backdrop of religious and political tensions, a bill that sought to rescind the rights of Kashmiri women who marry outside the state, was defeated in the state assembly, currently in its summer session in Srinagar.

The crisis in Najaf threatened to
stir up more anti-US sentiments

The controversial bill failed to garner the two-thirds' majority support required for its adoption as law.

If adopted, the law would have restricted the right of a Kashmiri woman to acquire immovable property in the home state on marrying a "non-state subject".

Vote polarised

The state assembly had unanimously passed the bill in March this year. But it lapsed in the the upper house of the bicameral legislature as it could not be put to vote during its final session.

The Congress, which heads the federal government in Delhi and is a coalition partner of chief minister Mufti Muhammad Sayyid's People's Democratic Party, had opposed the bill.

Two other regional groups - the Panthers' Party and State Morcha, representing the Hindu-populated Jammu area - backed the Congress stand that the bill was anti-women and discriminatory.

The PDP had rejected this criticism as "unfounded" and "politically motivated", and tried to get the bill passed with the support of the state's main opposition party, the National Conference.

Kashmiri lawyers make a bonfire
of cloaks to press their demands

The polarisation of the vote was along regional and religious lines, with almost all members elected from the predominantly Muslim valley - barring a couple of exceptions from the Congress - speaking out in support of the bill.

By contrast, the Hindu members of the assembly from Jammu were unanimous in their opposition to the bill.

Toll so far

In other developments, Kashmir police said a top commander of the state's main indigenous fighting group, Hizb al-Mujahidin, was killed in a gun battle with security forces in the Beeru area of central Budgam district on Friday morning.

Police added that armed Islamic fighters have killed about 500 civilians, including 54 women and 27 children, so far this year.

Since 1989, over a dozen separatist and pan-Islamic groups have been battling Indian rule over the predominantly Muslim state.