BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraqi police ordered all journalists to leave the holy city of Najaf (search) on Sunday, just as a new U.S. offensive against militants hiding out in a revered shrine began.
Four police cars surrounded a hotel in the city where journalists were staying and presented the order signed by Najaf's police chief, Brig. Ghalib al-Jazaari.
It did not spell out a punishment for those who did not comply, but police who delivered the order said any reporters remaining would be arrested, according to journalists at the hotel. The police said any cameras and cellular phones they saw would be confiscated. In response to the threat, many journalists left the city.
Later Sunday, the government appeared to be backing down.
Government spokesman George Sada said he contacted Interior Minister Falah Hassan al-Naqib, who informed him that police will be "taking it easy on the journalists."
"They are doing this out of concern over the journalists' safety," Sada said. "The interior minister decided that if the journalists want to stay, it will be at their peril and they will then have to bear the consequences."
Interior Ministry spokesman Adnan Abdulrahman denied anyone was threatened with arrest.
"Our instructions were clear, to ask the journalists to leave by midnight local time for their own safety," he said. "If anything other than that happened, it was perhaps a personal behavior," he added.
"We were particularly instructed to be careful and respectful with the journalists," he said.
The order, if it were enforced, would mean the only news coverage of the ongoing violence in Najaf, one of the most revered cities to Shiite Muslims (search), would be provided by reporters embedded with the U.S. military.
The U.S. military had no immediate comment.
The order also said that all cars coming into the city would be searched and all protesters must leave the city.
Earlier Sunday, police had advised reporters to leave Najaf, saying there was rumor of a potential car bombing targeting journalists. When most reporters stayed, the police returned with the order to leave.
Concerns about the interim government's commitment to freedom of the press were sparked Aug. 7 when officials order the Baghdad office of the pan-Arab television station Al-Jazeera (search) closed.
A constitution endorsed by the members of Iraq's now disbanded Governing Council in March includes protections for freedom of speech.