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America’s best buddy: Communist paper

Baghdad, April 20 (Reuters): It would not be Washington’s first choice, but the long-banned Iraq Communist Party today won the race to publish the first newspaper in Baghdad since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The eight-page People’s Path was handed out for free, snapped up eagerly by passers-by hungry for any kind of news after the US invasion eradicated state-run media.

“Collapse of a Dictator” read the headline under the hammer and sickle on the front page, followed by an article railing against the abuses of Saddam’s “bloody, terrorist reign”.

“With the dictatorship’s collapse, all the wishes of the vast majority of the Iraqi people have come true,” it said, printed around a picture of a child victim of the US-led war, his head bandaged and a tear rolling down his cheek.

When US forces rolled into Baghdad 11 days ago, ending Saddam’s rule and toppling a statue of him for good measure, they created an information and authority void, with practically no electricity, no papers, no TV and no officialdom to turn to.

Angry citizens yearn for order and advice, but the last written US information came in the form of airdropped leaflets urging people to stay calm during the war.

Others have moved in to fill the void, with influential religious leaders setting up community services, but the Communists were the first into print.

In Firdos Square in the centre, Iraqis stopped in their tracks to read the paper, amazed to see criticism of their former leader in writing.

“It is telling us about Saddam, how he did harm to our country,” said 27-year-old Khudair. “Of course we knew it, but we have never seen it written in a newspaper before.”

It was not clear where the paper was printed but it was full of praise for Kurdish leaders in north Iraq, which was free of Saddam’s control for a decade and where small Communist Party cells operated.

Under Saddam’s 24-year-old rule Iraq’s news-stands sold only state-approved papers. Babel, the highest-circulation newspaper, belonged to Saddam’s eldest son Uday, while Thawra was the official mouthpiece of Saddam’s Baath Party.

They were the last vestiges of the old rule to be seen hitting the streets on the morning of April 9 — the day US marines rode into Baghdad on tanks. “The great Iraq will remain steadfast,” read Babel’s last front-page editorial.

All other parties and their media were banned, and leaders of what was once the most powerful Communist movement in West Asia had long fled into exile in Britain and elsewhere.

Now the official newspapers have gone, along with state-run television and radio. Iraqis may not miss them, but they are desperate for news. Most listen to Iranian or Kuwaiti radio, BBC Arabic or Radio Sawa, the US-sponsored pan-Arabic station.

The occupying forces’ own Alliance Television airs for three hours from 8 pm on frequencies once used by Saddam-eulogising state television, but few Baghdadis have the power to tune in.

If they do, they prefer to watch al-Alam, an Iranian-based channel broadcast in Arabic which Iraqis can pick up without a satellite dish and which first popped up just before the war.

Satellite dishes, banned under Saddam but available discreetly to the wealthy, are now being snapped up.

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