Like its owner, Shiite newspaper casts itself as the voice of the people |

Like its owner, Shiite newspaper casts itself as the voice of the people

Associated Press Writer

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – As Ali al-Yasseri sees it, he and his reporters were just doing their job – ensuring that officials work to secure the rights of the Iraqi people. So when U.S.-led coalition officials shut down his al-Hawza newspaper, it was the “height of hypocrisy,” he said.

U.S. officials, who viewed al-Hawza as another pulpit for militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr that incited its readers to violence, may not agree. The reopening of the weekly newspaper after about 3 1/2 months could be the litmus test of how much dissent Iraq’s new government may be willing to tolerate.

Al-Yasseri, the paper’s managing editor, stressed they won’t do anything different and, if Iraq’s new interim leaders are honest, they have nothing to worry about. Their first, post-closure edition, comes out July 29.

“Our role is to shine the spotlight on whoever seeks to deprive Iraqis of their rights,” al-Yasseri told The Associated Press at the paper’s headquarters Tuesday. “We, the Sadrist movement, are the voice of the Iraqi people. Their breath is ours and our goals are one.”

Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi issued an order Sunday allowing the paper to reopen, explaining that the action reflected his “absolute belief in the freedom of the press.”

Officials with al-Sadr’s group said it was a welcome move, albeit a self-serving one. And, as al-Hawza steps in for round two, its editors and reporters have decided to paint their small weekly as the voice of the people.

In so doing, want to underscore what they say was the illegitimacy of the decision by Iraq’s former American administrator, L. Paul Bremer, to shut them down.

“We said nothing that wasn’t true,” he said.

U.S. officials had maintained the newspaper distorted the facts and helped incite anti-coalition sentiment. Moderate, middle class Shiites largely reject the paper as a poorly written mouthpiece for a dangerous movement that did little but stir unrest in a country overflowing with tension.

One of the articles that angered U.S. officials was a Feb. 26 piece that said a suicide bombing two weeks earlier that killed 53 people in the mostly Shiite town of Iskandariyah, south of Baghdad, was a rocket “fired by an (American) Apache helicopter and not a car bomb.”

Al-Yasseri said witnesses had appeared on Arab satellite channels claiming they saw Apache helicopters firing and that their article was no different.

“Why use that against us and not the other (media)?” asked al-Yasseri. “It’s just another example of American officials being unjust.”

In the same edition, an article titled “Bremer follows the steps of Saddam” criticized coalition work in Iraq.

The March 28 closure of al-Hawza, along with the arrest a few days later of a key al-Sadr aide in the holy city of Najaf, was a catalyst for a roughly two month, on-and-off series of clashes between al-Sadr loyalists and U.S. forces.

The shutdown was criticized by members of the now-defunct Iraqi Governing Council and by some Bremer advisers who, in private, said it unnecessarily bolstered the prestige of an otherwise little-known cleric.

Sadrists received Allawi’s decision with the same mixture of nonchalance and derision that they have heaped on the interim government.

Allawi “is trying to win our friendship and project an image of independence from the Americans,” said Abbas al-Robaei, the newspaper’s editor in chief.

U.S. officials in Baghdad could not be reached for comment. But top U.S. officials have stressed that their role is purely advisory and Iraq’s leaders have a free hand in decision-making.

Some Iraqis who had previously paid the newspaper scant attention grew more interested after its closure.

“It’s like the forbidden fruit,” said 38-year-old grocery store owner Hatem al-Janabi.

Al-Sadr and, by association, al-Hawza, has given officials ample reason to worry. The cleric has routinely criticized the new government as illegitimate, though he sometimes encourages a wait-and-see approach.

Al-Yasseri says there is nothing contradictory in the messages.

“On our pages, we are not saying we want power,” he said. “All we want is that the current government be committed to the welfare of the Iraqi people.”

Asked whether the newspaper would be equally vociferous against suspected foreign fighters reportedly operating in Iraq, al-Yasseri said the United States had created conditions ripe for terrorism in Iraq.

But “we are opposed to all those who undermine the rights of Iraqis or who take innocent lives,” he said.