Iraqi leader allows cleric's newspaper

Allawi's decision seen as show of independence

July 19, 2004|By Alissa J. Rubin | Alissa J. Rubin,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraq's interim prime minister sanctioned yesterday the reopening of a radical cleric's newspaper, which had been closed by American officials in March because they said it was inciting attacks on U.S.-led forces and their Iraqi allies.

The decision by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi approving the paper's plans to start up again appeared to be a reminder of Iraq's independence from previous U.S. policy as well as an effort to reach out to Shiite Muslims who support the paper's controversial backer, Muqtada al-Sadr.

The Shiite cleric has condemned the interim government as an agent of the United States but recently stopped short of calling for armed action against it.

U.S. forces, meanwhile, continued to play a central role yesterday in going after alleged insurgents near turbulent Fallujah, launching an airstrike at an area just south of the city in the early morning, according to a statement from the military.

Brig. Gen. Erv Lessel, deputy director of the U.S.-led forces, said the operation targeted "a known terrorist fighting position." According to Lessel's statement, the strike "destroyed defensive fighting positions and trench lines near the remains of a house and a foreign fighter checkpoint."

Approximately 25 fighters with ties to al-Qaida-trained militant leader Abu Musab Zarqawi were present at the site just prior to the strike, the statement said.

In Baghdad, Allawi said the return of al-Sadr's newspaper was an indication of his "unlimited faith in the freedom of the press" and his "optimism about removing any obstacles before the Iraqi people in all areas of life," including those in al-Sadr's movement.

The paper's closure was one of several events, including the arrest of a cleric affiliated with al-Sadr, that touched off a rebellion in April by Shiites.

Many Shiites support al-Sadr and are especially loyal to his father, a cleric who used his pulpit to rally the faithful against Saddam Hussein. The elder al-Sadr was assassinated in 1999 at the behest of the former Iraqi leader.

The younger al-Sadr's adherents saw the abrupt closing of the newspaper, named Al Hawza in honor of the seminaries that train religious students, as an insult to the tradition they follow.

Under the terms of the closure on March 28, the paper had to halt publication for 60 days. However, Al Hawza remained closed until four days ago, said its editor, Ali Yassiri. He said he had been waiting for instructions from al-Sadr headquarters in Najaf, the Shiite holy city about 100 miles south of Baghdad, before reopening.

Yassiri plans to start publishing the weekly again with the July 29 issue. Usually between 10,000 and 12,000 papers are distributed through wholesalers and mosques. Although he puts out a relatively small printing, Yassiri said each copy is typically read by at least 10 people.

In Fallujah, residents condemned the airstrike, saying 10 civilians had been killed and that all of the dead were Iraqis. They accused the Americans of trying to incite a violent response.

It was at least the fifth strike in the past month on supposed "safe houses" in the town where, according to the military, insurgents linked to Zarqawi were hiding.

In a news conference after his arrival in Baghdad yesterday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage said the Iraqi government "was fully informed" of the attack and "agreed with us on the need to take action."

An Iraqi official said Allawi approved the airstrike.

"The multinational force asked Prime Minister Allawi for permission to launch strikes on some specific places where some terrorists were hiding," an official in Allawi's office said yesterday on condition of anonymity. "Allawi gave his permission,"

Also yesterday, Philippine leaders said they would finish withdrawing their small contingent of troops from Iraq as early as today in keeping with the demands of kidnappers holding a Filipino truck driver hostage.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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