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Iraq Sues To Shut Down Newspaper, TV Station In Baghdad

ROBERT H. REID   04/13/09 02:39 PM ET   AP

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BAGHDAD — Iraq's Shiite-led government criticized foreign and Iraqi media Monday for reports about recent arrests of U.S.-backed Sunni paramilitaries, accusing news organizations of stoking religious tension and threatening national unity.

At the same time, Iraq's military threatened to sanction a major Arabic newspaper and a satellite television station for falsely quoting a spokesman about efforts to arrest former detainees recently freed by the Americans.

Those moves stem from growing tension between the Shiite leadership and Sunnis who turned against the insurgency, as the United States presses for progress on national reconciliation before the end of the American military mission in 2011.

Also Monday, an American soldier was killed by an armor-piercing bomb south of Baghdad, the U.S. military said. It was seventh combat death suffered by U.S. forces in Iraq since Friday.

Government anger at the media followed news reports that recent arrests of Sunni paramilitaries, known as Awakening Councils or Sons of Iraq, may have been politically motivated.

The paramilitaries were organized and funded by the U.S. starting in 2006 to help maintain security in their neighborhoods. The U.S. transferred control of the councils, whose ranks include former insurgents, to Iraqi authorities last year.

Since then, a number of council members have been arrested for alleged criminal activity and ties to subversive groups, including Saddam Hussein loyalists.

Leaders of the Awakening Councils have claimed that the arrests were aimed at marginalizing Sunni groups, which the U.S. credit with helping turn the tide against the insurgents.

In a statement Monday, the government said "local, Arab and international mass media" had launched a "coordinated campaign" against the national leadership by accusing it of "targeting the Awakening Councils in some areas."

The statement said those arrested were detained because they had committed crimes and not for membership in the councils.

The government accused unspecified news organizations of portraying "wanted men as heroes" in an attempt "to provoke hateful sectarian strife with the aim of damaging Iraqi unity."

The statement said officials were wondering "about the real goals of these campaigns and the groups behind them."

In the other move against media, the Iraqi military announced a lawsuit seeking to shut down the Iraq operations of Al-Hayat, a major London-based Arabic language newspaper, and Al-Sharqiya television station, for falsely reporting that orders had been issued to arrest ex-detainees recently released by the U.S.

Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi insisted he said only that ex-detainee files would be reviewed to determine if any of them were involved in a recent uptick in bombings. Most of the former detainees are believed to be Sunnis.

Al-Hayat issued a correction on its Web site on Monday, saying its information did not come from al-Moussawi but another unidentified official. Al-Sharqiya, which quoted the newspaper report, said the military complaint "is not worthy of a response."

In August 2004, the government closed the Baghdad bureau of Al-Jazeera television, accusing the station of inciting violence. The office is still closed, but the station operates in the Kurdish-ruled area of the north.

Iraq also shut down two privately owned TV stations in November 2006 for broadcasting protests over Saddam's death sentence.

About 200 newspapers publish in Iraq. Although some have been fined for their reporting, only one has been closed since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.

The American soldier was killed near Karbala, a Shiite holy city 30 miles south of Baghdad, when an armor-piercing bomb, known as an explosively formed projectile, exploded near a U.S. vehicle.

U.S. officials believe those projectiles, or EFPs, are manufactured in Iran and smuggled to Shiite militias _ a charge the Iranians deny.

Six other U.S. soldiers have been killed in recent days, including five who died Friday in a suicide truck bombing in Mosul. Another soldier was killed Saturday in a bombing in Salahuddin province north of Baghdad.

A claim of responsibility for the Mosul blast was posted Monday on a militant Web site in the name of the Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaida front. It also claimed responsibility for the Saturday suicide attack that killed nine members of an Awakening Council group south of Baghdad.

Also Monday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made a surprise visit to Iraq's self-ruled Kurdish region, said Kurdish government spokesman Fouad Hussein. Kurdish officials have signaled a willingness to accept Palestinian refugees from elsewhere in Iraq.

About 11,000 Palestinians live in Iraq, mostly in Baghdad. Some have been targeted in Iraqi sectarian attacks because of their perceived privileged status under Saddam.

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Associated Press Writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.

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Filed by Jessica Gusman  |