Middle East


'A Limitless Inferno'

A member of Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army celebrates the destruction of a U.S. military humvee in Baghdad's Al-Sadr City, April 4, 2004
A member of Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army celebrates the destruction of a U.S. military humvee in Baghdad's Al-Sadr City, April 4, 2004 (Photo: Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP-Getty Images).

On March 28, dozens of U.S. troops closed the offices of firebrand Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s newspaper, Al-Hawza, for publishing “many articles” containing false information and seeking to “disturb public order and incite violence.” Angry protesters at the newspaper’s offices in Baghdad reportedly warned the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to expect attacks from Al-Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army. Rumor had it that Al-Sadr was continuing to publish the newspaper in defiance of the CPA’s order.

On April 4, Mustafa al-Yacoubi, one of Al-Sadr’s closest aides, was detained on charges related to the murder of Ayatollah Abdul Majid al-Khoei, who was stabbed to death by a mob in April 2003. Following Al-Yacoubi’s arrest, Al-Sadr told supporters to “terrorize” the enemy because peaceful demonstrations had failed to convince the CPA to change its policy toward Al-Sadr’s organization. He also expressed support for Sunni insurgents battling U.S. forces.

That day, Mahdi Army militiamen ambushed three U.S. patrols in a Baghdad slum formerly called Saddam City and renamed Al-Sadr City in honor of Muqtada al-Sadr’s father after Saddam Hussein’s regime fell. An intense battle followed, with some 1,000 U.S. forces fighting hundreds of militiamen in the streets of the slum. According to wire reports, similar clashes between Al-Sadr’s supporters and U.S.-led forces across the country left more than 50 Iraqis and 12 coalition troops dead over the weekend. Hundreds more Iraqis were reportedly wounded. As the fighting continued on April 5, the CPA announced that it had issued a warrant for Al-Sadr’s arrest on charges stemming from Al-Khoei’s murder.

Writing before the worst of the clashes between Al-Sadr’s supporters and U.S.-led forces had begun, Basim al-Sheikh, editor and publisher of Baghdad’s independent Al-Dustour, criticized the closure of Al-Hawza and called on Iraqi journalists to behave responsibly in order to avoid future misunderstandings. We present a translation of his editorial.—WPR.

Supporters of the young religious leader Muqtada al-Sadr insist they will continue to protest the closure of his newspaper, Al-Hawza, for 60 days. This is an open message telling the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) that Al-Hawza did not cross the “red lines” [circumscribing what the Iraqi press can print]. To Al-Sadr’s supporters, Al-Hawza was not just another paper. It was their loud voice. It expressed their views and talked about the issues they cared about. So the decision to close it was a flagrant challenge to their identity, which is why we saw them crowd around the newspaper’s offices for the third time to demonstrate. And though the demonstrations were peaceful, it was clear that their anger could have jumped out of their eyes to ignite a limitless inferno.

If we carefully consider [U.S. presidential envoy to Iraq] L. Paul Bremer III’s resolution to close the newspaper, we must conclude that there is someone lurking to see what is written in the newspapers. We thought that the censor had gone forever. But it seems he is still here, suspiciously inspecting every newspaper—despite all the new freedoms we supposedly now enjoy.

Some of the stories published in Al-Hawza were run-of-the-mill. Other papers published what might be called stronger editorials than Al-Hawza did. This gives us the feeling that the CPA can close a specific paper for secret reasons while giving false reasons to the public. If, [as the CPA said], Al-Hawza had been crossing the “red lines” since Aug. 6, then why was it not given prior notice or warned to avoid printing such ideas? For a warning is a form of punishment that should precede any other. Then, what follows can be justified.

Regardless of the reasons behind the closure of Al-Hawza, we are absolutely against the closure of newspapers no matter what justifications are given, especially considering that we lack laws governing mass communications. If this continues, chaos will lead to confusion.

Finally, it is necessary to follow certain formulae organizing journalistic and media work in order to prevent misunderstanding and disagreement. This will give newsmen the chance to correct their performance if they deviate and so to safeguard freedom of expression by avoiding hurting anyone intentionally or unintentionally.