BAGHDAD, Iraq – The U.S.-led coalition on Sunday shut down a weekly newspaper run by followers of a hardline Shiite Muslim cleric, saying its articles were increasing the threat of violence against occupation forces.
Hours after the closure of Al-Hawza (search), more than 1,000 supporters of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (search) demonstrated peacefully in front of the newspaper's offices, decrying what they called a crackdown on freedom of expression.
Dozens of U.S. soldiers arrived at the Al-Hawza newspaper offices Sunday morning and closed its doors with chains and locks, sheik Abdel-Hadi Darraja said in front of the one-story house.
Darraja is a representative of al-Sadr, who lives in the southern holy city of Najaf and has been an outspoken critic of the U.S.-led occupation, but has not called for armed attacks.
A coalition letter in Arabic, signed by top U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer (search) and handed to employees at the newspaper, said the paper's articles "form a serious threat of violence against coalition forces and Iraqi citizens who cooperate with coalition authorities in rebuilding Iraq."
The paper will close for 60 days, the statement said.
A coalition spokesman confirmed the 60-day closure, saying several articles "were designed to incite violence against coalition forces and incite instability" in Iraq (search).
The spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said any violation of the closure could lead to the imprisonment of newspaper employees for up to one year and a fine of up to $1,000.
On Feb. 26, an article in Al-Hawza claimed that a homicide bombing two weeks earlier that targeted the mostly Shiite town of Iskandariyah, south of Baghdad, was a rocket "fired by an [American] Apache helicopter and not a car bomb." The attack killed 53 people.
In the same edition an article was titled "Bremer follows the steps of Saddam," and criticized coalition work in Iraq.
"This is what happens when an Iraqi journalist expresses his opinion," said the white-turbaned Darraja.
"What is happening now is what used to happen during the days of Saddam. No freedom of opinion. It is like the days of the Baath," said Hussam Abdel-Kadhim, 25, a vendor who took part in the demonstration, referring to the Baath Party that ruled Iraq for 35 years until Saddam Hussein was ousted a year ago.
In July, the coalition announced the closure of a Baghdad newspaper and the arrest of its office manager. The statement said Al-Mustaqila, which means "The Independent" in Arabic, published an article on July 13 calling for "death to all spies and those who cooperate with the U.S." It said killing them was a religious duty.