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Iraq orders Voice of America, 43 other media outlets to close

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BBC journalist Huw Edwards faces the camera as soldiers march past prior to a memorial service at Basra International Airport on April 30, 2009.

BAGHDAD - An Iraqi regulatory body has ordered the closure of 44 media outlets in the country including the BBC and Voice of America in a dispute over broadcast licenses, sources with knowledge of the order said on Sunday. However, no action was immediately taken.

Other organizations targeted for shutdown include privately-owned local TV channels Sharqiya and Baghdadia as well as U.S.-financed Radio Sawa.

A senior source at the Communications and Media Commission (CMC), the body responsible for the order, said the move had nothing to do with the way the outlets had reported on sectarian conflict in the country, as some reports have suggested.

US forces formally ended their nine-year war in Iraq with a low-key flag ceremony in Baghdad on Thursday. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

"The CMC sent such a letter warning them that they're going to shut down their services because they didn't pay (their license fees)," a senior source at the CMC told Reuters.

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The regulator had passed its order to the Baghdad operations command, the source added, referring to the local law enforcement forces who would carry out the closures.

"This is totally wrong and unwise as it comes at a time when the country is plunged into political uncertainty," Ziyad al-Aajely, head of the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, said.

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"What we are confident of is that the decision was not political, but its negative implications will definitely have political implications on the government and harm the reputation of Iraq as a free country," he added.

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In a telephone interview with The Associated Press, he called the move "a government message to the media outlets that if you are not with us, then you are against us."

The BBC said it was negotiating the renewal of its license with the Iraqi authorities.

"The delay is due to technicalities," it said in a statement. "The BBC's journalists in Baghdad are not currently experiencing any issues reporting from the country, and it is important that the BBC and other international news organizations are able to operate freely and bring independent and impartial news to audiences in Iraq and the wider region."

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Some of the outlets on the list no longer operate bureaux in Iraq.

However, Radio Sawa, the U.S.-funded station operated by Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Inc., told The Associated Press that it does have a license despite being on the shutdown list.

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"We were surprised to see our radio station on the list because we think that we work in accordance with all Iraqi laws," Sawa deputy director Salah Nasrawi said according to the AP. He added that "bureaucracy and the delays in the government offices might be behind this."

When the U.S. military withdraws from Iraq, thousands of Americans will remain. The United States' largest embassy is in Baghdad and there are two huge consulates in the region too.  Ambassador Jim Jeffrey compared the size of the U.S. Embassy and diplomatic efforts to when he was in Saigon in 1973. Ted Koppel reports.

Iraq's main political factions have been locked in a crisis since December, with opponents of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accusing the Shiite leader of trying to consolidate power at their expense.

Maliki is trying to fend off attempts by Sunni, Kurd and some Shiite rivals to organize a vote of no-confidence against him.

Reuters and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.

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