By Ahmed Rasheed
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Men armed with pistols, knives and steel pipes stormed into three Baghdad newspaper offices, beating employees and smashing computers after publication of an article about a Shi'ite Muslim cleric, police and editors said on Tuesday.
Monday's attacks illustrated the stubborn influence of hardline Islamist militias in Iraq, where Sunni and Shi'ite insurgents often imposed their own fundamentalist vision on the streets during the height of sectarian war a few years ago.
"A group of men armed with steel pipes and knives attacked three newspaper offices in Baghdad. Some of the employees were wounded and we have arrested two of the assailants," a police source said.
Yasir Tallas, an editor at Addustour, told Reuters that around 50 men in civilian clothes broke through the doors of the newspaper and smashed computers, furniture and printers.
"A group of men attacked us and set ablaze to the paper's archives. They threatened to kill us if the paper publishes any insults to those they are loyal to. This group is well known to the government," Tallas said, without mentioning names.
Addustour published a front-page editorial on Tuesday showing photos of damage to its offices and said the attack followed an article on plans by a Shi'ite cleric to hold a mass prayer in the holy city of Kerbala.
An editor working for another of the targeted newspapers said a group of men armed with pistols and blades attacked its offices in northern Baghdad, accusing journalists of having insulted their cleric.
"We were shocked after seeing men carrying pistols and blades breaking into the paper offices, beating and cursing employees for what they said were insults," the editor said on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisal.
Calls to the Shi'ite cleric's office seeking comment about the attacks on the newspaper premises were not returned. Police said they were still investigating who was behind the attack on the newspapers.
Islamist militant violence, especially suicide bombings, has resurged in Iraq during a political crisis where a power-sharing coalition among Shi'ite, Sunni and ethnic Kurdish blocs has all but broken down since U.S. troops left more than a year ago.
Iraq's media landscape has loosened dramatically since the days of dictator Saddam Hussein, when state-controlled media churned out endless propaganda. Now Iraqis have a choice of 200 print outlets, 60 radio stations and 30 TV channels in Arabic and also in the Turkman, Syriac and Kurdish languages.
But while press freedom has improved, many media outlets remain dominated by religious or political party patrons who use them for their own ends. The government has also occasionally threatened to close media outlets it regards as offensive.
The Iraqi media are still frequently targeted for their work. Five Iraqi journalists were killed in 2012, according to the International Federation of Journalists.
The Iraqi journalists' union has accused political parties of trying to intimidate its members and undermine freedom of the press by imposing a "language of the jungle".
"Assaults against media organisations or journalists are unacceptable under any circumstances," Martin Kobler, the special representative of the United Nations secretary-general for Iraq, said in a statement.
Iraq is a generally less conservative Muslim society than neighbours like Saudi Arabia and Iran thanks to a mix of Shi'ites, Sunnis, ethnic Kurds and Christians. But Islamist parties have risen to the fore since the 2003 fall of Saddam in a U.S.-led invasion.
Many Iraqis fear the rise of Islamic parties will encourage hardline Islamists to exert more influence over other aspects of Iraqi life and thereby tear at the delicate communal fabric.
(Editing by Patrick Markey and Mark Heinrich)