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By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
AMMAN (Reuters) - Rioting in Jordan after the government raised fuel prices left one protester dead, the first fatality of violence sweeping impoverished towns in the kingdom, and Islamists called for more protests on Friday.
Hundreds took to the streets this week after the government decided to raise gasoline, cooking gas and heating fuel prices. They blocked roads, set government buildings alight and trashed shops in the towns of Maan, Tafila, Salt and Karak.
The protester was killed and scores were injured during an attack on a police station overnight in Jordan's second-largest city of Irbid, witnesses said. Police said they used tear gas to disperse masked youths who attacked government property.
Some protesters torched part of Irbid's municipal headquarters later on Thursday to vent their anger at officials who said the dead young man had been armed, the witnesses said.
"The country has risen up from north to south and this state of popular tension is unprecedented," said Murad Adailah, a senior member of the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Front called for more protests after Friday prayers in the centre of the capital Amman and in mosques across the country.
The Brotherhood is Jordan's biggest opposition group.
Riot police chased scores of youths throwing stones overnight in Amman's main commercial area after foiling an attempt to stage an anti-government rally. Fewer protesters could be seen in the capital by late afternoon. Some tried to regroup but police sealed off the area nearby.
A staunch U.S. ally with the longest border with Israel, Jordan has not seen the kind of mass revolts that swept other Arab countries. The coming days will be crucial in testing whether the relative calm can continue.
Jordanians have held occasional protests inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings, demanding democratic reforms and curbs on corruption. But those gatherings were peaceful and the security forces did not use weapons.
Demonstrators sometimes chant against King Abdullah but there seems to be little enthusiasm for revolution. The monarchy is seen as a guarantor of stability, balancing the interests of tribes native to the east of the Jordan river with those of the majority of citizens, who are of Palestinian origin.
But the price rises announced on Tuesday could boost the popularity of the Islamist opposition, emboldened by the successes of its ideological brethren in Egypt and Tunisia.
The government has warned Islamists not to take advantage of the tension caused by the price rises but they have never sounded more confident.
"This is a huge political crisis and it has become clear that there is no more room to delay real and comprehensive reforms," said Jamil Abu Bakr, a Muslim Brotherhood leader.
Most of the civil unrest is in outlying areas inhabited by powerful tribes who are the original inhabitants of the country. They supply the army and security forces with recruits and form the backbone of support for the ruling Hashemite dynasty.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour said lifting hefty subsidies that cost at least $2 billion annually was unavoidable to avert economic collapse caused by a ballooning budget deficit and minimal foreign aid that normally keeps the economy afloat.
Some politicians say the monarch who has ruled since 1999 has been forced to take only cautious steps towards economic reforms, constrained by his tribal power base which sees such measures as a threat to its political and economic privileges.
The palace has traditionally contained discontent by offering patronage, state jobs and other perks. Critics say that policy of placating constituents was not sustainable in a country that no longer enjoys large infusions of foreign aid.
The fuel price increase is aimed at securing a $2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.
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