PM Bans Al-Jazeera
By Donald Macintyre
08 August 2004
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
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
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.