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Iraqi station mulls move after attacks

QAIS AL-BASHIR, Associated Press | October 13 2006

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The director of a new television station where 11 executives, producers and staffers were gunned down now wants to move the offices abroad, saying Friday that the gunmen who carried out the attack were sending a message to Iraqi media.

Hassan Kamil said he did not know why gunmen would target the Shaabiya station, which had a mixed staff of Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds. The station's chairman of the board, who was among those killed, was Shiite.

There were signs Shiite militiamen were behind the early morning assault on its offices in Baghdad on Thursday. Some of the two dozen attackers wore police uniforms, a common sight in attacks blamed on Shiite death squads, though the government says Sunni insurgents also disguise themselves as police.

Despite its mixed staff, the station had a reputation among Shiites as a "Sunni channel." The station had not even gone fully on the air, broadcasting only test programs: patriotic songs calling for Iraqi unity but also ones denouncing the "U.S. occupation."

That may have been enough to convince Shiite militias that the station was a supporter of Sunni insurgents.

"These people don't want the welfare of Iraq. Targeting a satellite channel is a message to scare the others working in the media" to toe a careful line in what they broadcast, said Kamil, the station's executive director. He said he would ask the channel's other directors to consider moving the offices to another Arab nation to broadcast into Iraq from there.

At least 18 people were killed in new violence reported Friday around the country. Gunmen shot to death six women and two young girls near the mostly Shiite town of Suwayrah, south of Baghdad, as they collected vegetables in a field Friday morning. Two girls with them were kidnapped, police said.

Day-long curfews imposed every week on the Islamic day of prayers in Baghdad the epicenter of violence appeared to help contain killings there. A special curfew was imposed in the northern city of Mosul after a clash Thursday night between gunmen and police that left eight gunmen dead.

Violence has been growing in Iraq, largely from sectarian killings that has left thousands dead since February.

In Thursday's attack on the station, some two dozen gunmen pulled up to the Shaabiya station in cars and broke in at 7 a.m. Much of the staff has spent the night in the building, working to get it ready to go on the air by mid-October, and some were asleep when the attack occurred.

"They killed them in their beds," Kamil told The Associated Press.

The station's board chairman Abdul-Raheem Nasrallah, a Shiite, was the head of the Justice and Progress Movement, a small, secular party that failed to win any seats in parliament in 2005 elections.

The party advocated unity between Iraq's divided communities, something Nasrallah promoted at the station. "He told the staff to avoid sectarian bias, he had wanted Kurds, Shiite and Sunnis on the staff," said Kamil, who was not at the station during the attack.

Residents told a U.S. patrol that checked the site later that the gunmen drove five trucks with Iraqi police markings, U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Steve Stover said.

It was the deadliest attack against the media in Iraq since the conflict began in March 2003. During that time, 85 journalists have been killed mostly Iraqis along with 35 other employees of media companies have been killed, including drivers, interpreters and guards, all of them Iraqi except for one Lebanese.

The head of the Mahdi Army, Iraq's most feared Shiite militia, issued a statement late Thursday disavowing violence committed against Iraqis in the name of his group.

In pamphlets distributed in his hometown of Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, Muqtada al-Sadr the radical Shiite cleric whose party is also a powerful member of the government said members of his militia had not been involved in any "unlawful attacks" on the Iraqi people.

"This has not been proven, but if it is shown to be true I will publicize their names and disavow them... I will say that they are personally responsible for their actions," he said.

It was not clear whether al-Sadr's statement was referring to the widespread belief among Sunnis that Mahdi Army fighters are involved in sectarian slayings or whether he was referring to minor clashes between his militia and other Shiite militias in the south.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi government on Friday said it still needs British and U.S. troops to remain, responding to comments by Britain's army chief that his country's military presence only increases security problems and that troops should leave soon.

Gen. Richard Dannatt backpedaled over the remarks made earlier to The Daily Mail, insisting Friday that he was referring to a phased withdrawal from Iraq over two or three years and denying that he spoke for the British government.

Britain has 7,500 troops in Iraq, deployed in the mainly Shiite south, which has been quieter than the central and northern regions patrolled by U.S. forces. But the south does still see attacks by Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents against British soldiers 119 of whom have been killed since March 2003.

The south is also the scene of low-level but unrelenting violence between militias, insurgents and security forces, kidnappings and slayings of civilians and intimidation of the public as Shiite militias impose strict Islamic rules in some areas.

The British government has "confirmed its support to the Iraqi government," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told The Associated Press. "The presence of these forces is necessary so that they can participate in establishing stability in Iraq."

 

 

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