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Saudi Arabia's government has banned the influential Arab newspaper Al-Hayat from distribution in the kingdom, just days after it published an article that a Saudi man had served as a key figure for an al-Qaida front group in Iraq, journalists and diplomats said Tuesday.
One of the country's most influential journalists immediately criticized the move, calling it a sharp retreat from growing press freedoms in Saudi Arabia.
Al Hayat's Saudi edition did not appear on news stands Monday and Tuesday because of the ban, several Arab diplomats told The Associated Press in telephone calls from Riyadh, the Saudi capital. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.
Saudi information officials had no immediate comment. Al Hayat officials in London, the paper's headquarters, also had no immediate comment.
But a Saudi journalist with knowledge of the situation said the Ministry of Information and Culture had imposed the ban after the paper in its Monday editions published an article about the Saudi man, Mohammad al-Thibaiti, thought to be a key figure in the Iraqi extremist group, the Islamic State of Iraq.
"They (authorities) confiscated the copies before going to stands, and imposed an indefinite ban on the paper," said the journalist, who is a member of the Saudi Press Association. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared reprimand.
A private distribution firm in the kingdom, the National Company of Distribution, also confirmed the ban.
One of Saudi Arabia's most influential journalists, Dawood al-Shirian, who is a former regional director at Al Hayat and still writes a weekly column, said he believed the ban had happened for a different reason.
Al-Shirian, who now is deputy head of Al-Arabiya TV, said Al Hayat staff had told him the kingdom's Information Minister had asked the newspaper to stop some writers from writing for the paper. But the paper had refused to comply with the request from Information Minister Iyad Madani.
Madani previously had been considered something of a reformer.
"The minister believes that those writers are critical of ministers and not of their performance - that they are being personal in their criticism," al-Shirian said.
Al-Shirian was strongly critical of the ban, saying that by taking such action, "the minister has wrecked an image about the rising limits of freedom in the Saudi media that has been established in the past two years ... This will harm the minister and the ministry, and not Al Hayat."
Al-Shirian said the policy may not have reflected the Saudi king's policy, and vowed that Al Hayat would not bend.
"If the ban lasts for a long time, he may fall," al-Shirian said of the minister. "But the paper will not close."
In the Monday article, which still appears on the newspaper's Web site, Al Hayat disclosed details about al-Thibaiti, also known as Abu Sulaiman al-Otaibi, the Saudi man inside Iraq - including his alleged close links to leading Saudi Wahhabi clerics.
Wahhabism is the strict version of Sunni Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia.
The newspaper also disclosed that al-Thibaiti had studied at Imam Mohammad bin Saud University, which is widely believed to be a stronghold for radical Islamist Saudis.
On Sunday, the self-declared Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaida front group in Iraq, said in a posting on an Internet extremist site that its leader had replaced al-Otaibi, who had been serving as the group's "justice minister," with another man.
The replacement, Abu Ishaq al-Jubouri, is an Iraqi. The extremist group's web statement said the replacement was made for "legitimate interests."
In the article, Al Hayat also quoted the Saudi Interior Minister, Prince Naif, as saying that some Saudis are traveling to Iraq to carry out suicide attacks.
"Those who survive come back to spread their deviant ideas," Prince Naif was quoted as saying. Iraqi officials have long contended that Saudis are coming to Iraq to fight with extremists against the Shiite-led government.
Al-Hayat is owned by Prince Khaled bin Sultan, the son of the Saudi crown prince and defense minister, Prince Sultan. Prince Khaled is himself a Saudi deputy defense minister and one of the most influential members of the royal family.
The London-based newspaper has several different world and regional editions. Its Saudi edition is believed to have the second-largest circulation of any newspaper in the kingdom.
Saudi papers are government-guided, with red lines usually drawn around sensitive topics. But it was not clear if the article had been vetted by any official before being printed.
Al Hayat has been warned several times in the past for publishing materials that the ministry has called unacceptable. Al-Shirian, then the paper's regional director, said in 2002 that it had faced outright government censorship in one dispute that year with government officials.