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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Forces Shut Down Baghdad Paper

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The U.S.-led coalition in Iraq on Sunday closed a newspaper sponsored by a popular anti-U.S. Shiite cleric, accusing it of creating unrest and inciting violence against occupation forces.

Within hours of the closure, hundreds of followers of the cleric, Muqtader Sadr, poured into the streets near the newspaper's offices in central Baghdad and in a slum neighborhood known as Sadr City in honor of the cleric's assassinated father. Although the demonstrations were peaceful, some observers feared the shutdown would inflame anti-American sentiment as the planned June 30 handover to Iraqi sovereignty approaches.

"Of course, it will provoke Muqtader al-Sadr's followers," said Hamid Bayati, a spokesman for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a leading Shiite Muslim political party represented on the U.S.-backed Iraqi Governing Council.

"It will emphasize the suspicions of the Iraqi people that America says it wants democracy but is suppressing any view that is not convenient for them."

It was unclear why the coalition chose this particular moment to close the paper, but one senior coalition official said the publication had been warned several times before Sunday. "This is not the first time. We've given them a chance to retract and clean themselves up," the official said. "But if they continue to spew vitriol, well. ..."

The occupation administration has had an ongoing battle with Sadr that extends far beyond his newspaper's articles.

Sadr, who is in his early 30s, has routinely denounced the occupation in his Friday sermons and has sought to raise his own militia, the Mehdi Army. Initially a ragtag collection of unemployed youths, it has become increasingly organized, and Sadr now has militias operating in several southern cities, including Nasiriyah, as well as Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, home to more than a million Shiites. U.S. officials have been closely tracking Sadr's efforts to expand the militia.

The coalition has also forced government officials and security forces in Najaf to shut down an illegal court convened by Sadr and a private prison where he was believed to be torturing some of those sentenced by his court. Just last week, U.S. civilian administrator Paul Bremer met with Najaf's governor and police chief to urge them to investigate reports that Sadr has continued to operate the court underground.

Judith Yaphe, an Iraq expert at the National Defense University in Washington and a former CIA analyst, said Sadr "is somebody who is dangerous. They [the U.S.-led coalition] don't like him, and they certainly want to keep things quiet during the changeover" of government scheduled for June 30.

So far, she said, Sadr "has been a bit containable. ... But if they suspect he is gearing up for demonstrations," the coalition is likely to take action against him and his followers.

Al-Hawza newspaper was shut down Sunday morning when dozens of U.S. soldiers arrived at its offices in Baghdad, ordered the staff out and locked and chained its doors. Troops handed the paper's editor, Sheik Ali Yasseri, a letter from Bremer alleging that the paper had breached an order issued last year that bans the incitement of violence.