BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq's interim prime minister issued a decree allowing a controversial newspaper to reopen after U.S. officials closed it in March, setting off months of fighting between U.S. forces and militants loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (search).
Meanwhile, after a two-month absence, al-Sadr showed up in Najaf in an unannounced visit to the Imam Ali shrine (search), one of Shiism's holiest sites. With all the pomp of a rock star, the mercurial cleric was ushered into the mosque as guards and aides cut a path through hundreds of chanting and cheering supporters.
Al-Sadr's "appearance and the disappearance was for security reasons," said Ahmed al-Shaibani, the cleric's spokesman in the holy city of Najaf (search). Associated Press Television News footage showed al-Sadr, looking uneasy, frowning and dismissively waving away people with a flick of his hand as he knelt in preparation for prayers.
The weekly Al-Hawza (search) was the mouthpiece of al-Sadr's "Sadrist" movement, routinely carrying his fiery sermons on its front page along with articles sharply critical of the U.S.-led occupation, which formally ended June 28.
Iraq's former American governor, L. Paul Bremer, ordered the newspaper closed for two months on March 28 for allegedly inciting violence against coalition troops.
Bremer's closure order expired May 28, but al-Hawza's editor in chief, Abbas al-Robai, has said that trying to resume publication then could have exposed the newspaper's editorial staff to arrest.
The closure and the arrest a few days later of a close al-Sadr aide in the holy city of Najaf began an anti-coalition uprising by militiamen loyal to al-Sadr in Baghdad and across Shiite areas in central and southern Iraq. A series of truces ended the fighting, which had raged on-and-off for two months.
Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi (search), himself a Shiite, ordered the paper reopened in an effort to show his "absolute belief in the freedom of the press," his office said in a statement.
Al-Sadr's representatives welcomed the move, but said it was an effort by the new leaders to win favor with the group.
"Closing the newspaper was according to our will, and opening the newspaper will also be according to our will," said al-Shaibani. "The issue is not in the hands of Allawi or others."
He said the newspaper's slant will remain unchanged and will still be "directed against the occupation."
Bremer's decision to close al-Hawza had drawn condemnation from members of the now-defunct Governing Council, who said it ran counter to talk of securing freedom for Iraqis. Privately, some officials of Bremer's now-disbanded coalition authority also criticized the decision, arguing that it had unnecessarily angered a large segment of Iraq's Shiite majority at a time when the U.S. military had its hands full fighting an insurgency in Sunni areas.
The order to reopen al-Hawza appears designed to broaden Allawi's base of support as his administration struggles to tackle a worsening security situation while trying build national support for the new government.
Al-Sadr and his top aides have repeatedly called Allawi's unelected government illegitimate, but said their movement was prepared to adopt a wait-and-see policy as the country prepares for a general election due in January. Al-Sadr also said he wanted to see how much influence the United States, with the bulk of the 160,000 coalition troops here, has on government decisions.