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Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi 7 August 2004 -- Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has defended his government's decision to close the Baghdad office of the Arabic-language Al-Jazeera broadcast network for one month.

Allawi, speaking today at a Baghdad press conference, also invited radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to run in the country's January elections, and announced a long-awaited amnesty for some Iraqi insurgents.

"We have asked an independent commission here in Iraq to monitor Al-Jazeera for the last four weeks, on a daily basis, and to get us a report out of the monitoring to see what kind of violence they are advocating, inciting hatred and problems and racial tensions," Allawi said.

Iraqi Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib, also speaking at today's press conference, said Al-Jazeera's coverage had "encouraged criminals and gangsters" in Iraq.

"Well, do you know exactly what Al-Jazeera have been doing?," al-Naqib said. "They have been showing a lot of crimes and criminals on television. And they transferred a bad picture about Iraq and Iraqis. And they encourage the criminals and the gangsters to increase their activities in the country, which has suffered a lot. We want to protect our people. I won't allow Al-Jazeera or anyone else to disturb security in this country. Thank you."

Earlier this week, al-Naqib said that Arabic-language satellite channels were encouraging kidnappings by broadcasting images of hostages being threatened with execution.

Al-Jazeera has denied the claim. A spokesman for the network said today the decision to close its Baghdad office contradicts pledges by the Iraqi authorities to uphold freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Allawi also said he had invited radical Shi'a Muslim leader Muqtada al-Sadr to run in general elections scheduled to take place in January 2005.

"I invite from this platform Muqtada al-Sadr to participate in the elections of next year," Allawi said. "The people of Iraq would have their say and he could be one of [those] the Iraqi people decide to pick up as a leader. This is a choice for the Iraqi people."

Allawi's remarks came on the third day of fierce fighting in the central city of Al-Najaf between U.S. forces and fighters loyal to al-Sadr.

The U.S. military said Friday it had killed 300 insurgents from al-Sadr's Mehdi Army. It is the worst fighting seen in Iraq in several months.

Allawi today sought to distance the Iraqi fighters in Al-Najaf from al-Sadr, saying most of the insurgents were criminals and loyalists of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

"I have been having positive messages from Muqtada al-Sadr. That's why we don't think that the people who committing the crimes in Al-Najaf and elsewhere are his people. We think they are people using his name," Allawi said.

Allawi also announced an amnesty for Iraqi insurgents in an effort to end the continuing violence in much of the country.

The 30-day amnesty will apply to Iraqi fighters who have committed minor crimes such as weapons possession. But, Allawi explained, insurgents who have engaged in serious crimes, such as murder, will not be eligible for the amnesty.

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