Najaf: Police Fire At Reporters -
US Tanks Roll To Shrine

By Adrian Blomfield in Najaf
The bullet that whistled through the lobby of the Sea Hotel in Najaf yesterday, embedding shards of glass into a foreign reporter's cheek before lodging itself in an air-conditioning unit, carried an unmistakeable message: "Get out."
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.
As US marines and Iraqi security forces resumed their operation to evict insurgents from the Shrine of Ali, the holiest place in Shia Islam, the Iraqi interim government decided yesterday to treat the media as the enemy.
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.
The police rarely venture out of their stations and the street outside the hotel is almost always deserted.
Mr Jazeera's expressions of concern were quickly followed by a thinly veiled attack on the foreign press.
"We know you are neutral journalists despite the fact you did not report the bad actions by Sadr's people when they beheaded and burned innocent people and the Iraqi police," he said.
For good measure, Mr Jazeera also threatened to arrest Iraqi drivers and translators working for the press corps if we did not comply. The 30-odd journalists staying at the Sea Hotel decided to stay in Najaf.
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.
As night fell, shots were fired at the roof of the hotel, from where reporters file their stories.
Sadr's fighters are more press-friendly. The cleric's aides frequently drop into the hotel to brief journalists, or take us to the shrine to meet Sadr or his spokesmen.
In Basra, Sadr's lieutenants ordered the release of James Brandon, a reporter taken hostage by Mahdi army renegades on Thursday night.
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.
Gunfire sounded in Najaf all yesterday. By nightfall US tanks had moved to within a few hundred yards of the shrine.
© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2004



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