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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 December 2005, 11:37 GMT
Iraqi Shias slam Arab TV channel
By Magdi Abdelhadi
BBC Arab affairs analyst

Iraqis hold banners of Ayatollah Sistani at a demonstration in Sadr City
Al-Jazeera is not popular inside Iraq unlike in other Arab countries
Thousands of Iraqi Shias have staged demonstrations in several cities in protest against the Arabic satellite television channel al-Jazeera.

The protestors demanded an apology from the channel for allegedly airing an insulting remark about Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's leading Shia cleric.

A guest on a talk show is reported to have said that Ayatollah Sistani should stay out of politics.

The ayatollah wants Iraqis to vote according to their religious beliefs.

"It is a protest against the traitor al-Jazeera," a woman at a protest in Baghdad said.

"It is not the first time, but the second, and we consider this an insult to all Muslims. It is not just an insult to Sayyed Sistani and the Shias, but also an insult to all Muslims and Arabs."

In the city of Najaf, protesters were joined by Iraqi police who waved their guns in the air and chanted: "No to al-Jazeera, no to terrorism."

Simmering hostility

It is surprising that the expression of an apparently harmless view, which is not uncommon in Iraq, could trigger so much anger.

Iraqis demonstrate in Baghdad's Sadr City
The protests took place throughout Iraq

One possible explanation is that the incident is being exploited politically to whip up support for the Shia parties in Thursday's election.

These parties currently control the government, but their majority is expected to be reduced after the election.

The demonstrations are also a testimony to the tense relationship between the Shias and the Sunni Arabs.

Attacking al-Jazeera becomes a symbolic salvo in the simmering hostility.


Al-Jazeera is not popular inside Iraq unlike in other Arab countries.

Many in Iraq believe that the channel has been biased in favour of Saddam Hussein and the insurgents.

Al-Jazeera has run into trouble more than once in Iraq.

The Iraqi government has banned it from operating inside the country for broadcasting tapes by insurgent groups.

Al-Jazeera's employees have long been convinced that their offices in Baghdad were deliberately targeted by the Pentagon in 2003.

But this is the first time ordinary Iraqis have themselves come out in large numbers against the controversial channel in this way.


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