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Al-Arabiya Employees Express Anger at Baghdad Bureau Shutdown - 2003-11-25

Iraqi employees of the Arabic-language television station al-Arabiya are expressing anger and disappointment over the Governing Council's decision Monday to shut down its Baghdad bureau. The decision marks a dramatic escalation in the long-running dispute between the Dubai-based television station and coalition and Iraqi authorities.

Members of al-Arabiya's Baghdad bureau lingered around their offices, even though few had any work they could do.

Late Monday, Iraqi policemen, carrying orders from the Governing Council and the Iraqi minister of interior, raided the bureau and seized key broadcast equipment.

The current holder of the Governing Council's rotating presidency, Jalal Talabani, says council members decided to close the bureau following the network's November 16 broadcast of an audiotape claiming to be the voice of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

The tape urged Iraqis to wage a holy war against coalition troops and Iraqis working for the coalition, calling such attacks a legitimate and patriotic duty.

The Central Intelligence Agency has not been able to confirm the tape's authenticity. Mr. Talabani says the tape, nevertheless, was an incitement to murder that should never have been broadcast.

Al-Arabiya's Baghdad bureau chief, Wehad Yacoub, says he and 50 other Iraqi employees here are bewildered by the Governing Council's order to shut down their operations because the audio tape was recorded and broadcast from the station's headquarters in Dubai, not Baghdad.

"It is not fair. We did not break any law," he said. "This bureau is part of the company so they are punishing us because our company has broadcast that tape. We are all disappointed and we are now jobless."

Al-Arabiya, and its competitor, al-Jazeera, are the most popular and influential television broadcasters, both in Iraq and in the rest of the Arab world.

Since April, U.S. officials and the U.S.-appointed Governing Council have been critical of both networks, saying their relentless coverage of attacks on coalition troops and inflated counts of U.S. casualties severely distorted the truth.

Two months ago, al-Arabiya and al-Jazeera were temporarily barred from covering the council's news conferences or entering Iraqi ministries.

The Coalition Provisional Authority says U.S. administrator Paul Bremer fully supports the Governing Council's effort to discourage the media from printing or broadcasting inflammatory statements that could potentially harm the country's security.

But the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalist says it disagrees. The group has condemned the move against al-Arabiya, saying the closure of the Baghdad bureau "raises deep concerns about the future direction of press freedoms in Iraq."