Prague, 19 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The weekly "Al-Hawza" had been the mouthpiece of al-Sadr's radical movement, carrying his fiery sermons on its front page along with articles sharply critical of the U.S.-led occupation.
But after Iraq's former U.S. administrator, L. Paul Bremer, ordered the newspaper closed on 28 March for allegedly inciting anti-coalition violence, the chaos only got worse.
The paper's closure and the arrest a few days later of a close al-Sadr aide in the holy city of Al-Najaf sparked an uprising by al-Sadr forces in Baghdad and Shi'a areas in central and southern Iraq.
A series of truces has somewhat subdued the fighting, which remains separate from an ongoing insurgency involving Sunni Muslims loyal to former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and foreign militants.
On 18 July, Iraqi Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, himself a Shi'a, issued a decree allowing the paper to be reopened. Allawi's office said the move was part of an effort to show the premier's "absolute belief in the freedom of the press."
Al-Sadr's representatives welcomed the ban's lifting, but said the newspaper's slant will remain unchanged.
Yahia Said, a research fellow at the London School of Economics, told RFE/RL that Allawi's move is part of a broader strategy to strengthen support for the government as it copes with growing violence, including a car bombing that killed at least nine people and wounded another 60 outside a Baghdad police station today.
According to Said, that strategy represents a rejection of the one taken by Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority, which stepped down on 28 June. "In general, it's part of a broader strategy by the new government to, if you like, split the insurgency and offer those who are in it for allegedly nationalist motives a chance to join the political process, to lay down their arms, and participate in the process that will ultimately lead to elections and eventual full sovereignty or full independence, and then isolate the terrorists this way."
Other analysts agree. Julian Lindsey French, of the Geneva Center for Security Policy in Switzerland, said Allawi is using the "Al-Hawza" restoration as a way of alienating the foreign fighters now active in Iraq.
"I think ultimately what the interim prime minister wants to do is split the foreign jihadists away from domestic groups who are really vying over the future political order in Iraq itself," French said. "And by doing so, he's indicating goodwill toward al-Sadr and his militia and his group. And it seems to me to be a political risk, but nevertheless a serious calculation to isolate the foreign jihadists from the domestic movements."
Al-Sadr's representatives welcomed the ban's lifting, but said the newspaper's slant will remain unchanged and will still be "directed against the occupation."
"They're continuing with their belligerent rhetoric, really. I've heard comments of them saying that the newspaper will be unrelenting in its attacks against these 'collaborators' and so on, and show the reality of this new government, and so on," Said said. But ultimately, obviously, Sadr has been making noises to the effect that he is willing to join the fold and start a new page with the new government. [But that] will remain to be seen."
Meanwhile, after a two-month absence from public view, al-Sadr made an unannounced visit yesterday to Al-Najaf's Imam Ali Shrine, one of Shi'a Islam's holiest sites.
The fanfare surrounding the cleric's visit was described as worthy of a rock star, with guards and aides cutting a path through hundreds of chanting and cheering supporters as they led al-Sadr into the mosque for prayers.
Al-Sadr and his aides have repeatedly called Allawi's unelected government illegitimate. But they have also said they will adopt a wait-and-see policy as the country prepares for a general election due in January.
According to analyst Said, the government is also adopting a similar approach to al-Sadr, for whom U.S. forces issued an arrest warrant in April on charges of murdering a moderate rival cleric in Al-Najaf in April 2003.
"In general, the new Iraqi government has been much more lenient with al-Sadr than the coalition," Said said. "They are allowing him to address the charges through his lawyer rather than appearing in court himself. And they are trying to give him a face-saving way to climb down, which has been widely acknowledged as the best approach to al-Sadr -- to kind of, if you like, pacify him."