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Monday, August 16, 2004

Shoot the Press 

Donald Macintyre of the Independent was in Najaf yesterday when Iraqi police told journalists to get the hell out:
Despite indications that any full-scale assault in the city might await completion of the conference in Baghdad, most Arab television crews and other reporters left the city last night after armed police came to the Bar Najaf hotel, where nearly all foreign and Arab journalists are staying, to order them to leave for Baghdad. Journalists who protested were told: "You have been warned. You have two hours. If you don't leave you will be shot."

The move against reporters in Najaf, designed to intimidate journalists other than those embedded with US forces into leaving the city, began when Najaf's police chief, Ghalab Jazaree, summoned reporters to announce that they had two hours to start the return journey to Baghdad.

Initially, Mr Jazaree, whose uncle was recently kidnapped by Sadr's men, told reporters that police had found a car loaded with dynamite which had been intended by insurgents to blow up the Bar Najaf. He said that police had guarded the hotel and added: "We didn't tell you yesterday but we have decided to tell you this morning because it will not be safe this afternoon to travel to Baghdad."

He said: "We know you are neutral journalists, even though you have not reported the bad actions by Sadr people when they beheaded and burned innocent people and the Iraqi police." In view of the media's neutrality "we are protecting you". The order for the journalists to leave had been issued by the Ministry of Interior in Iyad Allawi's interim government, he added . . . .

But nearly five hours after the deadline had passed without incident, police armed with pistols and AK-47s arrived at the hotel and again told all journalists to leave within two hours.

As a group of Arab and Western journalists were attempting to meet the Governor, Adnan Zurufi, to protest against the order, a second police contingent arrived bearing a written order to all journalists in the city to leave. The journalists at the Governor's office were turned back by a plain-clothes security officer who told them: "You have been warned. You have your two hours. If you don't leave you will be shot."

The attempted media ban--reminiscent in its own way of the Saddam Hussein regime toppled 15 months ago--is in contrast to the media savvy of Sadr spokesmen who have welcomed reporters to the Imam Ali shrine and made visits to the Bar Najaf hotel to give press conferences.

But yesterday afternoon, a convoy of journalists--including reporters from The Independent, Daily Telegraph and The Times--briefly came under machine-gun fire in the boarded-up streets of the old city between the line of widely separated US tanks and the holy sites controlled by Sadr's militants.
Meanwhile, a rumor touted yesterday by Fox -- that Shiite insurgents have tricked out the holiest shrine in Iraq as a giant booby-trap -- has spread to UPI and CNN today, with an added, highly intriguing fillip:
Iraq's National Conference agreed on Monday to send a delegation to Najaf to meet with Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and encourage him and his Mehdi Army militia to withdraw from the Imam Ali Mosque . . . .

The Iraqi Interior Ministry said Sunday 25 heavily armed foreigners are holed up inside the mosque south of Baghdad and have rigged it with explosives, threatening to blow up the building if attacked.

[Delegate Rajaa] Khuzaie said the delegation will ask al-Sadr and his militia to leave the shrine, lay down their weapons and reconfigure themselves as a political group.

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