Al-Jazeera accuses US of harassment in row over 'bias'

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A day after Paul Wolfowitz, the US Deputy Defence Secretary, claimed that the Arabic Al-Jazeera television channel was "inciting violence" and "endangering the lives of American troops" in Iraq, the station's Baghdad bureau chief has written a scathing reply, complaining that in the past month his offices and staff in Iraq "have been subject to strafing by gunfire, death threats, confiscation of news material, and multiple detentions and arrests, all carried out by US soldiers".

The unprecedented dispute between an Anglo-American occupation authority supposedly dedicated to "democracy" in Iraq and an Arab station once praised by Washington for its services to free speech in the region comes as the US administration appears ready to close down Al-Jazeera's operations in Iraq - along with Al-Arabiya channel - for alleged "incitement to violence".

The US proconsul in Iraq, Paul Bremer, said he would shut newspapers or television stations guilty of "incitement to violence" - without explaining what this phrase means.

Mr Wolfowitz, a right-wing ideologue, is one of the cabal that pushed the US into war on the grounds that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that destroying the regime would open the way to a new, democratic Middle East. He used the Murdoch-owned Fox channel to make his allegations against Al-Jazeera, many of which are palpably false. For example, he accused Al-Jazeera of "slanting the news incredibly ... the minute they get something that they can use to spread hatred and violence in Iraq, they're broadcasting it around."

As the bureau chief, Wadah Khanfar, points out in his letter to Mr Bremer - a copy of which has been obtained by The Independent - "Al-Jazeera did not cover Saddam Hussein favourably. Both Yasser Abu Hilala [a senior reporter] and I have been expelled from Baghdad by the former regime for our reporting. The bureau was shut down twice by the former ministry of information for unfavourable coverage ... Al-Jazeera reporters have even been physically assaulted by the former information minister Mohammed Saeed as-Sahaf, for daring to broadcast events which cast the regime in an unfavourable light."

But the dispute has already gone beyond words. US troops have raided the bureau's offices in Ramadi and arrested reporters, harassment that has been accompanied by claims from US officers - Col Teeples of the 3rd Armoured Cavalry Regiment especially - that Al-Jazeera has advance notice of attacks on US troops. The station sometimes receives unsolicited videotapes - hand-delivered by unidentified men - showing ambushes of US convoys. In many cases, Al-Jazeera decided not to show the tapes - but this has had no effect on the Americans.

The antagonism between Washington and Al-Jazeera goes back to the 2001 bombing of Afghanistan when, after the station showed a tape of Osama bin Laden, a US cruise missile hit the Kabul bureau. Then in April, after beaming pictures of Iraqi civilians mutilated by US air raids and tape of American prisoners in Iraqi hands, a US jet targeted the Baghdad bureau, killing a reporter. Al-Jazeera had earlier given the co-ordinates of the offices to the Pentagon to prevent any accidental bombing.

These events, seen by much of the international press as a deliberate bid to murder Al-Jazeera staff, mean that reporters regard themselves at risk if they offend Americans.

Another of Mr Wolfowitz's claims involved an incident in Najaf. He said: "Al-Jazeera ran a totally false report that American troops had gone and detained one of the key imams in this holy city of Najaf, Muqtad al-Sadr [sic]. It was a false report but they were out broadcasting it instantly."

Mr Khanfar replied: "Al-Jazeera never stated at any time that Muqtada as-Sadr was detained. Our correspondent, Yasser Abu Hilala ... stated he had received phone calls from Muqtada as-Sadr's secretary and two of his top deputies saying the imam's house was surrounded by US forces after he called for the formation of an Islamic army. The phone calls were not only made to our offices but to all the offices of As-Sadr's followers in Baghdad resulting in a massive demonstration in front of the Republic Palace within 45 minutes which we reported, along with The New York Times, CNN and others.

"When Mr Abu Hilala attempted to contact the US military's public information centre," he added, "they did not even know about the demonstration going on in their own backyard, let alone what was happening in Najaf."

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