Monday, April 5, 2004

BAGHDAD — A decision by the U.S.-led coalition to close a newspaper allied with a radical anti-American cleric began a chain of events that yesterday led to the first widespread armed battles between Shi’ites and coalition forces.

If the clashes continue, the United States and its allies could find themselves battling not only the pro-Saddam holdouts in the so-called Sunni Triangle, who have been behind most of the resistance, but also a radical faction of the majority Shi’ites who initially welcomed U.S. forces.

Black-clad supporters of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have led a series of daily protests in Baghdad and elsewhere since chief U.S. civil administrator L. Paul Bremer ordered the closure of their newspaper, Al-Hawza, about 10 days ago.

Today, a steel chain with a padlock stamped “U.S. Government Property” seals the paper’s entrance on a busy Baghdad street corner.

“Soldiers surrounded the area and sealed it off. They didn’t tell us beforehand. They just closed the newspaper,” said Ali Ghazi, 21, a second-year college student who moonlights as a security guard at the paper.

The coalition said it closed the newspaper for 60 days because it had been printing false statement likely to incite violence.

The protests gained strength on Friday, when several thousand demonstrators bearing giant posters of Mr. al-Sadr took over a bridge across the Tigris River and marched to the gates of the so-called Green Zone, the coalition’s heavily guarded slice of central Baghdad.

The crowd, while angry, was peaceful.

“This is an Islamic newspaper and it expresses the viewpoints of all people. The press has to be free, and the occupiers have to apply this formula and open the paper,” said Abdul Hussein al-Kasili, a lawyer who attended the march.

Several thousand members of Mr. al-Sadr’s militia, known as the Army of the Mehdi, or messiah, marched through Baghdad in a display of force Saturday.

Yesterday, crowds organized by the militia protested the arrest of an aide to Mr. al-Sadr, Mustafa al-Yacoubi, who coalition officials said will face murder charges in connection with the April 10 killing of Shi’ite cleric Abdel-Majid al-Khoai.

Mr. al-Sadr’s office in Baghdad issued a statement late yesterday in which he said further protests were useless but appeared to call for more violence.

“There is no use for demonstrations, as your enemy loves to terrify and suppress opinions, and despises peoples,” said the statement distributed by Mr. al-Sadr’s office in Kufa, south of Baghdad.

“Terrorize your enemy. God will reward you well for what pleases him. It is not possible to remain silent in front of their abuse,” he said, although it was not clear whether he was speaking literally. He also said he would stage a sit-in at a mosque in Kufa.

Attacks on coalition forces until now have come mainly from Sunni Muslims and foreign fighters from elsewhere in the Muslim world.

The Shi’ites, who make up about 60 percent of the nation’s population but suffered under the rule of Saddam Hussein, generally welcomed the overthrow of the dictator and have been far more willing than the Sunnis to accept the coalition presence.

Mr. al-Sadr remains considerably less influential than the more moderate Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, who called yesterday for demonstrators to “remain calm, to keep a cool head and allow the problem to be resolved through negotiation,” an aide said.

But Mr. al-Sadr’s followers admire his strong denunciations of the United States and, at rallies, often chant their readiness to die for him.

Mr. al-Sadr, 30, takes his claim to legitimacy from his father, Ayatollah Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr, who was killed by Saddam in 1999. Portraits of the father are hoisted at every gathering, and his sayings are often cited by the younger al-Sadr.

Mr. al-Sadr says he descended through his father from the Prophet Muhammad and, as such, is referred to as “al-sayed,” or master, by fellow Shi’ites.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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