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Angry protests as coalition shuts down Iraqi newspaper
Hundreds of followers of an Iraqi Shiite Muslim cleric have burned an American flag in an angry protest after the US-led coalition shut down the cleric's newspaper for 60 days for inciting violence.
"The newspaper has been closed for 60 days because it has violated order 14, which prohibits newspapers from creating instability through inciting violence against the coalition forces," a spokesman told AFP.
"If anyone prints anything during the closure period he will be liable to go to jail for up to one year and will be fined up to $1,000," the spokesman said.
Responding to a call from the cleric's office, his supporters converged in cars, pick-up trucks, buses and on foot for an open-ended sit-in in al-Hurriyah square in southern Baghdad where the newspaper is located.
Three hours later the crowd had swollen to several hundreds and as many as 1,500 clerics, men and boys stood shoulder to shoulder outside the building to vent their fury against the US-led occupation.
A spokesman for the cleric, Sheikh Mahmud Sudani, said the protest would be "peaceful" in line with the instructions of the radical Shiite leader.
"We will not break the lock because we want to prove to the world that we are peace-loving people - we are opposed to violence," he said as he stood outside the padlocked one-story building.
"We are determined to pursue our protest until they reopen our newspaper."
He acknowledged that the newspaper was opposed to the occupation, but denied it was inciting violence against US forces.
Sheikh Sudani said Mr Bremer was angered by the weekly's harsh condemnation of Israel's assassination last Monday of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of the militant Palestinian group Hamas.
On March 25, the newspaper carried on its front page pictures of Yassin, as well as of Moqtada's father and great uncle, Mohammad Sadek al-Sadr and Mohammad Baqr al-Sadr, who were killed by Saddam Hussein in 1999 and 1980 respectively.
But Mr Bremer's order imposing the closure referred to two "inaccurate" reports published by the weekly in its February 26 edition, including one that compared the US overseer to Saddam and his oppressive regime.
"They tried to close down our paper but we are still have our weapons: our noble pens," the weekly's deputy chief editor, Ali al-Yasser said as the protesters chanted anti-US and anti-Israeli slogans.
Followers of Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr flocked to the offices of his newspaper on Sunday after US-led occupation forces shut down the daily, accusing it of inciting "violence".
They were responding to a call for an open-ended sit-in outside al-Hawza al-Natiqa buildings on al-Hurriyah square in southern Baghdad to protest against the action on the daily.
"No to occupation," shouted the crowd, as dozens of unarmed al-Sadr supporters, wearing black and deployed to maintain security, watched a group burn a US flag.
Al-Sadr's spokesman, Mahmud Sudani, said that dozens of US troops came to the premises and shut the doors with chains and locks before issuing a written order by occupation administrator Paul Bremer for the closure of the newspaper.
The order accused the paper of having "published articles that prove an intention to disturb general security and incite violence against the coalition and its employees."
It ordered a 60-day shut down of al-Hawza from the day the letter was dated. However, the order gave no date.
Imprisonment and fine
An occupation spokesman confirmed the 60-day closure.
The spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said any violation of the closure could lead to the imprisonment of newspaper employees for up to one year and a fine of up to US$1000.
On 26 February, an article in al-Hawza claimed that a bombing two weeks earlier that targeted the mostly Shia town of Iskandariyah, south of Baghdad, killing 53 people, was a rocket "fired by an (American) Apache helicopter and not a car bomb."
In the same edition, an article was titled "Bremer follows the steps of Saddam," and criticised the occupation forces' activities in Iraq.
"What is happening now is what used to happen during the days of Saddam. No freedom of opinion. It is like the days of the Baath," said Hussam Abd al-Kadhim, 25, a vendor who took part in the demonstration, referring to the Baath Party that ruled Iraq for 35 years until Saddam Hussein was ousted a year ago.
Al-Sadr, who lives in the southern holy city of Najaf, is outspoken about the US-led occupation, but has not called for armed attacks.
A statement issued by his office on the newspaper's closure said: "We ask everybody to come to the newspaper and stay there until it is reopened."