BAGHDAD — The U.S.-led coalition in Iraq on Sunday closed a newspaper sponsored by a popular anti-American Shiite cleric, accusing it of creating unrest and inciting violence against occupation forces.
Within hours of the closure, hundreds of followers of the cleric, Muqtader Sadr, poured into the streets near the newspaper's offices in central Baghdad and in a slum neighborhood known as Sadr City in honor of the cleric's assassinated father. Although the demonstrations were peaceful, some observers feared that the shutdown would inflame anti-American sentiment as the planned June 30 transfer of sovereignty approaches.
"Of course it will provoke Muqtader al-Sadr's followers," said Hamid Bayati, a spokesman for the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a leading Shiite Muslim political party represented on the U.S.-backed Iraqi Governing Council. "It will emphasize the suspicions of the Iraqi people that America says it wants democracy but is suppressing any view that is not convenient for them."
It was unclear why officials chose this particular moment to close the paper, but one senior coalition official said the publication had been warned several times before Sunday. "This is not the first time. We've given them a chance to retract and clean themselves up," the official said. "But if they continue to spew vitriol, well.... "
The occupation administration has had an ongoing battle with Sadr that extends far beyond the pages of his newspaper.
Sadr, who is in his early 30s, has routinely denounced the occupation in his Friday sermons and has sought to raise his own militia, the Mehdi Army. Initially a ragged collection of unemployed youths, it has become increasingly organized, and Sadr now has militias operating in several southern cities, including Nasiriya, as well as Baghdad's Sadr City, home to more than 1 million Shiites. U.S. officials have been closely tracking Sadr's efforts to expand the corps.
The coalition has also forced government officials and security forces in the city of Najaf to shut down an illegal court convened by Sadr and a private prison where he was believed to be torturing some of the people sentenced by his court.
Last week, U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer III met with Najaf's governor and police chief to urge them to investigate reports that Sadr had continued to operate the court underground.
Judith Yaphe, an Iraq expert at the National Defense University in Washington and a former CIA analyst, said Sadr "is somebody who is dangerous. They [the U.S.-led coalition] don't like him, and they certainly want to keep things quiet during the changeover" of government.
So far, she said, Sadr has been "containable." But if the coalition suspects he is planning demonstrations, Yaphe added, it is likely to take action against him and his followers.
Al Hawza newspaper was closed Sunday morning when dozens of U.S. soldiers arrived at its offices in Baghdad, ordered the staff out and locked and chained its doors. Troops handed the paper's editor, Sheik Ali Yasseri, a letter from Bremer alleging that the paper had breached an order issued last year that bans the incitement of violence.
"They told us they would arrest us if we did not leave. They said our articles incite people against America," Yasseri told Reuters news agency outside the paper's office.
The weekly paper, whose name refers to the students of the Shiite clerics based in Najaf, is read primarily by followers of Sadr. Its circulation is thought to be well below 50,000. Under Bremer's decision, it is banned from publishing for two months. Another breach of the anti-incitement order would result in jail and a $1,000 fine, the letter said.
Bremer's letter gave several examples of the newspaper impugning the work of the coalition or lying about activities of the U.S.-led occupation forces in ways that were likely to inflame anti-American feelings.
The letter referred to a series of pieces it said had incited hatred, including an editorial titled "Bremer Follows the Steps of Saddam." Another article alleged that a Feb. 10 explosion in Iskandariya, south of Baghdad, that killed about 50 people was caused by a rocket launched from a U.S. Apache helicopter -- not by a car bomb, as American forces said. "This article is a fraud; no American forces attacked the building," Bremer's letter said.
"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," Bremer wrote.
To many Iraqi readers, however, the articles in Al Hawza seem more like shrill tabloid fare than dangerous rhetoric that would merit the serious step of closing a newspaper -- especially given the potential backlash. Many Iraqi newspapers routinely publish articles that are blatantly untrue, although most avoid tangling with the coalition.