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Shiite cleric's newspaper shut down, sparking protests in Baghdad

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The U.S.-led occupation authority dispatched soldiers to shut down the newspaper of an extremist Shiite cleric Sunday, charging that the paper repeatedly published misinformation designed to incite violence against U.S. troops.

The closure prompted as many as 3,000 of followers of the cleric, Moqtadr Sadr, to assemble for an angry demonstration that blocked traffic on a main Baghdad thoroughfare.

The protesters chanted "Long live Sadr" and "America is just infidels," and some burned an American flag. Iraqi police were nowhere to be seen, and U.S. troops looked on from a distance.

The newspaper closure and the protest illustrated the coalition's dilemma as it tries to promote democratic values in Iraq while also combating what it sees as dangerous extremism.

Alaa-eldin Elsadr, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said he accompanied about 50 U.S. troops to the offices of the Sadr organization's weekly al Hauza newspaper. The soldiers ordered employees out of the building and sealed it. The paper will be closed for at least 60 days, Elsadr said.

Elsadr gave newspaper officials a letter from U.S. Ambassador L. Paul Bremer that said the paper published misinformation, including articles blaming terrorist attacks on coalition forces.

"These false articles not only mislead readers but constitute a real threat of violence against coalition forces and Iraqi citizens who cooperate with the coalition in the reconstruction of Iraq," the letter said.

Sheik Mahmood al Sawdani, a Sadr spokesman, denied that the newspaper had incited violence, and said it was shut down because it "rejects the occupation."

"This is a contradiction to the new constitution," said Juma Khanjar, 44, a taxi driver who came for the protest. "The Americans said there is freedom of the press. Where is the freedom of the press?"

Iraq's interim constitution, which takes effect July 1, provides for freedom of the press and freedom of speech. It does not discuss when speech becomes incitement to violence. The coalition is setting up a news media commission that will come up with rules about such issues.

In the United States, courts have allowed state laws against incitement to violence. But the language has to be far more explicit than anything the Sadr newspaper said, according to coalition officials' translations of the offending passages.

On Feb. 26, an article claimed that a suicide bombing that targeted a Shiite town south of Baghdad, killing 53, was a rocket "fired by an (American) Apache helicopter and not a car bomb," Elsadr said.

Another article was headlined "Bremer follows the steps of Saddam," and criticized coalition work in Iraq.

Elsadr acknowledged that such a shutdown would not happen in the United States, but added, "Iraq is not America. Iraq is going through a very sensitive time right now, and, while there is freedom of the press, that freedom must be used responsibly."

Most of the protesters arrived after hearing about the closure on mosque loudspeakers in Sadr City, a poor Shiite enclave of Baghdad named after Sadr's father, who was killed by Saddam Hussein.

Radical Shiite groups have grown increasingly impatient with the U.S.-led occupation.

Oppressed under Saddam Hussein, Shiites make up a majority of Iraq's population. Many Shiites listen closely to their religious leaders, some of whom, including Sadr, regularly preach anti-American extremism. But so far, those leaders have not supported attacks against the coalition, and U.S. and British officials have treated them delicately in an effort to keep it that way.

Sunday's move appeared to mark a tougher stance against Sadr, whose views are seen as far more extreme than those of Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani, the most influential Shiite leader. But, while opinion polls indicate that Sadr's popularity among Shiites is low, his group is well organized and well armed.

Sadr, believed to be around 30, controls an armed militia called the Mehdi Army, estimated to have thousands of members. The group has sought to enforce Islamic law in the Shiite-dominated south and is alleged to have mounted an October ambush in Baghdad that killed two U.S. soldiers.

The coalition temporarily closed down at least one other newspaper, al Mustaqillah, in July after it directly called for attacks on U.S. troops, officials said at the time. In early February, officials issued a warning to another paper, al Sa'ah, for articles the military felt encouraged violence.

Dozens of newspapers have been launched in post-war Iraq, but many are surprisingly bland and tame, given the passions undergirding religion and politics these days. In a climate of rampant revenge murders, many editors worry that pointed criticism could be dangerous.

In other developments, two private security guards, one British and one Canadian, were shot to death while guarding a General Electric power project in Mosul. In other violence in that northern city, two rockets were fired at the city hall.

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(Dilanian reports for the Philadelphia Inquirer.)

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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