Iraqi PM bans al-Jazeera for 'inciting hatred'

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The Independent Online

The Arab satellite TV network al-Jazeera was banned from operating in Iraq for 30 days yesterday as Iyad Allawi's interim government sought to restore some stability after three days of fighting that US forces claim cost the lives of 300 Shia insurgents.

The renewable ban on the Qatar-based network was announced at a news conference at which Mr Allawi also unveiled details of a limited amnesty designed to win back the support of potential recruits to an insurgency joined once again by supporters of the radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Police ordered al-Jazeera's employees out of their newsroom and locked the door.

As Mr Allawi accused al-Jazeera of "inciting hatred", a statement from the Ministry of the Interior said it had failed to show the "reality of Iraqi political life" and had "agreed to become the voice of terrorist groups".

Falah al-Naqib, the Interior Minister, who last week declared that al-Jazeera was "strengthening" kidnappers and hostage-takers by showing their videos, said the closure would give it the chance "to readjust its policy agenda". He accused the station of encouraging "criminals and gangsters to do their activities in the country", and transmitting "a bad picture of Iraq".

The move, which the station immediately condemned as "regrettable" and "not justifiable", was the most draconian measure publicly announced by Mr Allawi yesterday, as the mainly deserted streets of the holy Shia city of Najaf experienced a few hours of relative calm after what had appeared to be some of the most intensive fighting seen in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein 16 months ago.

While sporadic explosions and gunfire continued to resound across the city, a 24-hour deadline set for the insurgents to pull out by the governor of Najaf, Adnan al-Zurufi, passed without any visible sign of a withdrawal or any full-scale attack by rebel or US forces.

While strongly condemning the "lawlessness" of the insurgents, Mr Allawi appeared to offer Mr Sadr some room for manoeuvre by suggesting that many of those participating in the fighting in Najaf had been common criminals "hiding behind" the Sadr name.

Mr Allawi said yesterday he had decided not to invoke emergency powers, though there has been strong speculation that the interim government is close to restoring the death penalty for some offences. In Basra, one gunman was reportedly shot dead by police when the governor's office came under fire at dawn.

US forces say that two Marines and one soldier were also killed in the fighting. Mr Allawi, who went out of his way to thank tribal leaders for seeking to use their influence to quell the insurgency, did say that Iraqi forces had captured 1,200 "criminals" involved in the unrest.

Mr Allawi did not confirm estimates given on Friday by US Marine officers that 300 insurgents had been killed in the Najaf fighting on Thursday and Friday.

The figures have been strongly denied by several of the many spokesmen for the Mahdi Army. An original figure of 36 insurgents dead was revised downwards to nine by Ahmed al-Shaibany, an aide of Mr Sadr in Najaf, while an administrator at the city's main hospital said that at least 19 civilians had been killed and 68 wounded.

But the main controversy is likely to surround the ban on al-Jazeera. Mr Allawi disclosed that an "independent commission" had been reviewing al-Jazeera's performance over the past month and that its report had led to the ban. US officials have regularly criticised the station, complaining of its broadcasting of statements by Osama Bin Laden and his associates.

Jihan Ballout, a spokesman for the station, said they had been given no official reason for the ban and added that it was "unwise". It was a curb on press freedom and on the "right of the Arab people around the world to see a comprehensive picture about what's going in an important region in Iraq".

Meanwhile the families of four Lebanese truck drivers kidnapped in Iraq pleaded yesterday for their safe release.

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