About four months ago, U.S. combat troops seized the offices of the al-Hawza newspaper, evicted the staff and padlocked the front gate, armed with an order from Iraq's U.S. administrator saying the paper had incited violence against U.S.-led forces and their Iraqi supporters.
This week, al-Hawza reopened for business in the same dingy, tangerine-colored office covered with posters of turbaned Shiite clerics. Though officially welcomed back by the new Iraqi prime minister, the paper's officials defiantly vowed to return to the same brand of provocative criticism and religious agitation that got it shut down in March.
"We know that the American occupation is not really over, and we intend to remain as critical as before," said Abbas Rubaie, the chief editor, 38, shortly after returning to his office Saturday to a round of congratulatory kisses from his staff. "Closing the paper was a disaster" for U.S. officials, he added. "The Iraqi government should think hard before doing the same thing."
Al-Hawza is the editorial arm of a radical Shiite Muslim movement headed by Moqtada Sadr, a firebrand cleric who became an impassioned opponent of the U.S. presence in Iraq and formed a militia of young followers known as the Mahdi Army, named after the legendary lost imam of Shiism.
Founded in May 2003, shortly after the U.S.-led forces toppled the government of Saddam Hussein, the weekly paper, with a circulation of about 13,000, featured red-letter headlines excoriating U.S. troops and the U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer as enemies of Islam and Iraq. One of its most notorious articles was titled, "Bremer Follows the Steps of Saddam."
Finally, Bremer lost patience and shut down the paper on March 28, accusing it of reporting lies, fomenting instability and seeking to "incite violence against coalition forces" and their Iraqi collaborators. The action drew considerable criticism in Iraq and abroad; the Columbia Journalism Review called it "questionable" and counterproductive.
The crackdown sparked a series of street protests and led to several months of violent clashes between U.S.-led troops and youthful Shiite militia forces that left hundreds dead. But by May, the violence had subsided and public attention had turned to the U.S. military prison scandal and the impending transfer of sovereignty from U.S. to Iraqi hands, which took place on June 28.
On Sunday, Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi issued an order allowing the paper to reopen, saying he wanted to stress his "absolute belief in freedom of the press." But Sadr's aides responded with studied indifference, saying they did not need Allawi's approval and suggesting he was making a clumsy effort to buy them off.
"We were surprised by Allawi's statement," Rubaie said. "We are an independent newspaper, and it is not up to the government to authorize us or not." He said he had personally cut off the padlock and chains on the newspaper office the week before Allawi's order and had already intended to resume publishing.
But despite the statements, al-Hawza appears unlikely to return to its relentless, inflammatory attacks of last winter. For one thing, Bremer, is gone, and the new Iraqi authorities include senior Shiite officials who defended the paper against the U.S. actions.
"We are in the new Iraq. Any newspaper has the freedom to write," Hamid Bayati, the deputy foreign minister and a prominent figure in another Shiite group, said Saturday. "We will try to include the viewpoint that al-Hawza and al-Sadr represent in the political process. . . . We want all Iraqis to consider this government as their government."
At the same time, Sadr, who once preached weekly sermons filled with anti-American invective and was repeatedly threatened with arrest by U.S. officials, has become less active. In June, he dropped from sight until this week, when he suddenly reappeared in his home city of Najaf, heading evening prayers and delivering his first Friday sermon in weeks.
Sadr's new statements have been confusing and contradictory, suggesting some splits within his movement, an ambivalent view of the new government and a struggle with his original backers in Iran. At al-Hawza, meanwhile, staff members said this week that their aim would be to provide constructive criticism of the government, investigate corruption and expose the plight of the poor.
"We want to be the voice of the people, to pay attention to problems the other media ignore," said Hussain, 21, a student reporter who would give only one name. Another staff member said he was part of a delegation that had sought out Iraqi officials to let them know that al-Hawza was reopening and "to avoid a repeat of the past bloodshed."
Still, there is no question that the newspaper is a religious vehicle, supported and staffed by a radical Shiite movement. Rubaie is a Shiite cleric who was once the personal secretary of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, the father of Moqtada Sadr and a revered Shiite leader who was mysteriously assassinated in Najaf in 1999.
The editor and his staff wear casual Western garb and welcomed a female Washington Post reporter to their offices this week, but none would shake hands with her and one politely admonished her to hide her hair more securely beneath her head scarf.
As the paper geared up Saturday to publish its first edition since March, a reporter hunched over his tape recorder, transcribing an important interview by hand. It was a conversation with a member of Sadr's Mahdi Army, describing how he had been seriously wounded by U.S. military shrapnel but soon cured by the blessings of Mahdi, whose second coming is preached by Sadr.
"We are part of the Sadr office, and our policy before was to provoke peaceful resistance to the occupation. They shut us down because we were effective in doing that," said Haider Ali Hubar, who writes a satirical column for the paper. "In the past, we criticized the Americans. Now we will criticize the Americans and the Iraqis, too."
Special correspondent Bassam Sabti contributed to this report.