Bremer closes hardline newspaper and Iraqis ask: Is this democracy US-style?

By Robert Fisk in Baghdad

30 March 2004

Another little lesson in democracy. "The Americans and the Governing Council are kaffirs," the Iraqi Shias screamed yesterday from the minibus in Al-Hurriyah Square. Hurriyah means freedom. Kaffirs means infidels, atheists, apostates.

On Sunday morning, American troops blocked the four roads into the square and Iraqi policemen - 90, according to the journalists of the Al-Hawza al-Natiqa newspaper - entered the paper's offices on the square and presented the staff with a signed letter from Paul Bremer, the US proconsul, ordering them to close down the weekly for 60 days.

Then US troops searched the premises. A few biscuits were left lying on the sofa of the editor's office. And the gates were closed with a new lock, marked "American Made". "This is not America - this is Iraq," one of the paper's journalists said yesterday, pointing at the gate which had already been forced open by the staff.

Now let us not be romantic. Al-Hawza al-Natiqa means "The Spoken (Islamic) College" and the paper is a mouthpiece of Muqtada Sadr, whose "Mehdi's army" brings a chill even to the heart of Paul Bremer. Its sin, among many, was to criticise Mr. Bremer and - in his own words, for he signed the letter - "to provoke violence against the 'Coalition Forces'." For coalition, read occupation.

The letter was quite specific; anyone who disobeyed and dared to publish more "false reports" faced court, a possible year in prison and a $1,000 (£550) fine.

Mr Bremer was specific about the paper's alleged crimes. The letter was addressed to the manager of the paper, Sheikh Abbas al-Raba'i, and stated that his publishing licence was being revoked. He and his editor, Sheikh Abbas Hassan Zargani, were guilty of publishing "false" articles.

"I am satisfied that your newspaper ... published many articles ... that made the security situation unstable and that you are encouraging violence against the Coalition Forces and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA)."

To wit - as they say in the courts - an article on 26 February stating that the destruction of new Iraqi police barracks in Iskandariyah that same month was caused by a missile fired by an American helicopter.

"In the same edition," Bremer wrote, "you published an article entitled Bremer is following the example of Saddam". In that story, Bremer claimed, the paper had stated that the occupation authorities were, "making the Iraqi people hungry so that they will spend their time trying to find food and will not have the chance to demand their political and individual freedoms.

"This report is false and the CPA is doing its best to provide food and medical help for the Iraqi people and to repair the infrastructure of the country and put the fundamentals of political, economic and individual freedoms in place." These efforts, Bremer said, were previously "outside the dreams of the Iraqi people".

There then followed a list of further sins. On 6 August last year, the paper accused the United States of invading Iraq "not only to remove Saddam and steal Iraq's oil but to destroy the character and civilisation of the Iraqi people. On 21 August, the paper claimed that the Americans in Sadr City in Baghdad - a vast area of Shia slums - were "fighting Islam and its symbols." That represented "a serious threat of violence against the 'Coalition Forces' and against the Iraqi people who are co-operating with the CPA in the reconstruction of Iraq."

Mr. Bremer did not mention that in the incident a US helicopter crew took down an Islamic flag from a pole in Sadr City. Yesterday, the paper's staff replied. "Suppression of the press", they cried. Al-Hawza al-Natiqa was merely "letting our people know what is going on in secret ... ". From the Balfour Declaration of 1917 - giving Britain's support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine - to the new "criminal constitution in Iraq", the people were lied to. The "honest voices" of journalists' could not be silenced.

In "Freedom Square" yesterday, there was no truck with the argument that the last thing the occupation would do was attack its own new creation, the "new" Iraqi army. Every time a police station or even the UN headquarters, is attacked, the rumour spreads that the Americans are to blame.

Nonsense, you may say. But does a weekly paper with a circulation of only 10,000 - in a population of 26 million - really pose a threat to the all-powerful occupying power? Was it worth this anger to put an American lock on the gate?

"Is this the democracy that the American angels came to give us?" the editors' reply asks. "Is this the transfer of free journalism that modern states wish to bestow upon Iraq?"

If Mr Bremer thinks he can give Iraqis things "beyond their dreams", it was "beyond their dreams" that they would be afraid of "black-belted suicide bombers" and destruction.

And, it should be added - though the paper's staff did not say so - the Shia of Iraq were the population most viciously treated by Saddam. Indeed, Mr. Bremer's letter was addressed to the office of "the Martyr Sadr". Mohamed Sadeq al-Sadr was assassinated by Saddam's thugs in 1999, along with two of his sons. Muqtada is the surviving third son.

"This idiot Bremer closed our paper and look at the anger of the people," one of the paper's journalists, Mustafa al-Mohamediya, said yesterday. Well, not that many people. Fifty at most, with the black flags of Moharram, were demonstrating outside the offices of the paper in "Freedom Square".

It's a run-down quarter of Baghdad, where lovers carve their names on the trees. "God will kill the enemies of the Imams and give victory to their son Muqtada", it was written on a banner yesterday. The "war on terror" continues ...