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Paper with ties to al-Sadr can reopen, Iraq's prime minister says

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The interim Iraqi government announced Sunday that it would allow a newspaper affiliated with Muqtada al-Sadr to reopen, the latest in a string of concessions to a radical cleric whose militia has attacked and killed dozens of Americans and Iraqis.

It was the U.S.-led coalition's closure of al-Sadr's Al Hauza newspaper on March 28th that sparked a widespread and deadly uprising by al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. Then-U.S. Administrator L. Paul Bremer ordered the weekly shuttered on the grounds that it had repeatedly published false information designed to incite attacks on U.S. troops, including articles that blamed terrorist bombings on American aircraft.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Iyad Allawi issued a statement saying that he would allow Al Hauza to reopen in an effort to demonstrate his "absolute belief in freedom of the press." He said Iraqis should have access to all views, including those represented by al-Sadr's newspaper, "in order to contribute and enrich the blessed process of freedom, democracy, security and prosperity."

Al-Sadr does not appear to share those goals. The son of a revered Shiite cleric, he espouses a Taliban-style dogma that seeks to impose its austere version of Islamic law on Iraqi society. University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole, a leading expert on Shiite Islam, has called al-Sadr's movement "highly puritanical and xenophobic" and argued that "to any extent that it emerges as a leading social force in Iraq, it will prove polarizing and destabilizing."

Four men who were cleaning up in the newspaper's offices Sunday said they could not make an official comment, but they said a celebration was planned for Wednesday and the paper would publish an edition next week.

In the days that followed the newspaper's closure, al-Sadr's militants attacked U.S. troops in the Baghdad slum of Sadr city and seized control of the southern cities of Najaf, Karbala, Kufa and Kut by attacking Iraqi police and security forces with rocket propelled grenades.

The U.S. Army's 1st Armored Division retook the cities in some of the most intense combat since the fall of Baghdad, but it stopped short of ousting al-Sadr from around the holy Shiite shrines in Najaf.

At least 19 U.S. soldiers were killed in those battles, but even before the June 28 handover, the promise by American generals to "kill or capture" al-Sadr had been cast aside.

Al-Sadr's forces have been regrouping in Najaf, and his followers appear to control Sadr City. They are believed to be behind a string of recent bomb attacks against sellers of alcohol in Baghdad.

After as many as 1,500 al-Sadr militants were killed in battles with U.S. troops, the cleric announced a cease-fire and said he would enter politics. But unlike Iraq's other major militias, the Mahdi Army has not agreed to disband. Al-Sadr repeatedly has called the new government illegitimate.

Nevertheless, in recent weeks, Allawi's government has made a number of gestures to placate al-Sadr, perhaps in recognition that it cannot defeat him militarily without angering large numbers of Shiites.

Officials have discussed, though they have not announced, an amnesty for insurgents that may cover al-Sadr and many of his followers. Allawi has personally thanked al-Sadr for the cease-fire. And Iraq's justice minister suggested that a warrant for the cleric's arrest on murder charges could be suspended for three years.

In a separate statement Sunday, Allawi announced the formation of a committee designed to improve the lives of Sadr City residents.

American officials have studiously avoided commenting on al-Sadr in recent weeks, saying it was up to the Iraqi government to deal with him. That stance is the latest example of how the United States has had to scale down its ambitions for stamping out extremism in Iraqi's political life.

Another example is Fallujah, where, in other developments Sunday, U.S. jets bombed a house that officials said was being used by foreign militants, killing 14 people, according to news reports. It was the sixth U.S. airstrike in the last month, in a city that officials say has become a haven for insurgents since the Marines withdrew in April.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who held a news conference in Baghdad on Sunday during a visit to Iraq, said the strike was planned in concert with the Iraqi government.


(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Hannah Allam and special correspondent Saleem Khalaf contributed to this report.)


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