Tue, Jul 20, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Iraqi paper that set off conflict is to publish again

THE GUARDIAN , BAGHDAD

An Iraqi newspaper closed in March by the US occupation authorities, sparking protests and an armed uprising that led to hundreds of deaths, has reopened, it emerged on Sunday.

The next edition of the weekly, which supports the radical Shia Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, could appear within days.

"We were waiting for instructions from Najaf [Sadr's headquarters] and now we will come out again next week," Ali Yasseri, the editor of al-Hawza, said last night.

The occupation authorities closed the paper on March 28 for 60 days, saying it had violated regulations banning incitement to violence.

But it was not clear that the paper's content in its final issue was any more radically critical of the occupation than earlier issues, against which the authorities had taken no action.

The closure seemed intended to reduce Sadr's influence. At the same time the Americans published an arrest warrant for the cleric for alleged involvement in murder.

Both moves led to street demonstrations by hundreds of Shia Muslims in central Baghdad.

This in turn led to heightened US military patrols in Sadr city, the huge district full of jobless young people that contains most of his followers.

Armed clashes erupted, which led to a full-fledged uprising that lasted for two months and spread to Najaf, Kerbala, Kut and other southern cities. Hundreds died but the cleric's support went up, as he began to be seen as a champion of independence.

The prime minister, Iyad Allawi, put out a statement yesterday announcing the paper's reappearance, indicating that this was a mark of his respect for press freedom.

But Yasseri said the initiative for the reopening had come from his staff and Sadr. He disclosed that he had met American and British officials after the closure.

"I told them that they were making a mistake, and that if you close al-Hawza you will open 10 voices in its place," he said.

Asked if he feared the new Iraqi government might also ban the weekly, Yasseri replied: "I didn't expect the American administration would be so stupid. We have seen American freedom and democracy and we don't think the Iraq government will do the same thing. They have to have the consent and blessing of the Iraqi people."

In Falluja yesterday a US air strike destroyed a house and killed 14 people, hospital and local officials said. The attack was in a neighborhood previously targeted by US forces, and was the sixth on the city since the US passed control to a special locally recruited Iraqi brigade and withdrew.

The US said it was targeting safe houses used by the network of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant blamed for masterminding car bombings and other attacks in Iraq.

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