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Closing newspaper in Iraq hypocritical

Let us dispense with all the high-falutin’ talk about assuring democracy and freedom of speech in Iraq. U.S. forces recently took control of a newspaper office in Baghdad, padlocked the doors and sent the editors packing.

Iraqi administrator Paul Bremer signed the order, which, according to The New York Times, “cited what the American authorities called several examples of false reports in Al Hawza, including a February dispatch that said the cause of an explosion that killed more than 50 Iraqi police recruits was not a car bomb ... but an American missile.”

There’s no question the newspaper, the voice of an extreme Muslim cleric named Moktada al-Sadr, routinely traded in conspiracy theories and advocated the end of the U.S. occupation. But shutting down media organizations that are critical of U.S. policies seems counterproductive while we are trying to persuade Iraqis to embrace a free society.

It’s troubling enough that since last June the United States has required that all Iraqi newspapers receive a license that can be revoked at any time. And Al Hawza is not the first victim of U.S. censors, according to the Los Angeles Times. “At least twice, the council has cracked down on Arab TV stations ... accusing them of inciting violence, airing ‘inflammatory’ material and ‘disrespecting’ Iraqi religions and national leaders,” the newspaper reported.

The official explanation for closing Al Hawza, as The New York Times pointed out, makes no reference to inciting violence, but only to false reports. And if a free press is to be protected and encouraged in Iraq, shutting down news outlets for being disrespectful or inflammatory is troubling. If that standard were in place in the United States, no media outlet would be free to do critical reporting.

No wonder many Iraqis were angered by the action and accuse the United States of hypocrisy. One can’t have it both ways: a free society and a society that takes orders from U.S. officials.

No doubt, a strong and troubling Islamic fundamentalist movement is alive — and will be long after the United States turns over power — in Iraq. But we will never help the Iraqis build a free and open society that might resist a fundamentalist theocracy by shutting down free expression we do not like.