Monday, August 16, 2004
All journalists ordered to leave Najaf (updated)
Police ordered all journalists out of the city on 15 August, supposedly for their own safety, and warned that those who refused to leave risked arrest.
"This blackout on news from the city is completely unacceptable and is unprecedented in Iraq," said the worldwide press freedom organisation's secretary-general, Robert Ménard. "The presence of journalists in Najaf is vital since the worst atrocities are always committed in the absence of independent witnesses. Reporters must be allowed to decide for themselves whether they wish to leave for their own safety."
Najaf's police chief announced on the morning of 15 August that the interior ministry had ordered all journalists, Iraqi or foreign, to leave the city within two hours. He said people were planning to attack the media.
A senior police officer went to a city hotel where journalists were staying, ordered them to leave at once or face arrest and said the city was now "closed." Several then decided to leave. If all of them were to, the new attack would only be covered by journalists "embedded" with US military units.
Iraqi journalist Mohammad Kazem, who works for the Iranian Arab-language TV station Al-Alam, was arrested when he made a live broadcast from a rooftop in Najaf, according to press reports from Teheran.
So far I see no reports of this in the American media. Perhaps all their reporters are embedded with the military.
The British Independent has published a much more detailed account, and it's not flattering.
Journalists working in Iraq have long lived with the danger of being targeted by insurgents fighting US-led forces and their Iraqi allies.
But in Najaf the roles have been abruptly reversed. Now the Iraqi police threaten journalists, and the insurgents welcome them.
The authoritarian stance towards the press seems redolent of the days of Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi government has closed the offices of al-Jazeera, the most important Arab satellite station, accusing it of inciting the insurgents.
In Najaf journalists were summoned yesterday morning by the city's police chief, Ghalab al-Jazeera. It was said that he wanted to parade some captured members of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army, who have launched their second uprising in four months.
Instead the police chief delivered a blunt warning: journalists had two hours to leave Najaf or face arrest. Mr Jazeera's official explanation for the decision was that police guarding the hotel had found 550 lbof dynamite in a car nearby. That seems unlikely.
Shortly after the deadline expired, the first bullets struck the building. But the sniper was almost certainly an Iraqi policeman, given that the Mahdi army fighters were more than two miles away.
Then armed police raided the hotel and tried to arrest the journalists, before imposing a new two-hour deadline to leave the city.
A deputation of journalists was denied an audience with Najaf's governor, Adnan al-Zurufi. The policeman outside his office was brusque. "If you do not leave by the deadline we will shoot you," he said.
That was enough for all but a handful of British and American journalists who hunkered down in the hotel as the deadline expired.
It was not hard to see why Iraq's interim government might prefer journalists out of the city.
On Saturday, negotiations with Mahdi army militants holed up in the Imam Ali shrine broke down and a ceasefire was called off.
The options facing the US marines and their Iraqi allies are grim. An offensive on the shrine, burial place of Imam Ali, cousin of the prophet Mohammed and inspiration for Shia Islam, is likely to push moderate Shias over to Sadr's side.
America would prefer the fledgling Iraqi security services to carry out the attack, but they are poorly equipped and trained and unlikely to succeed.