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Top Arab TV network to hit US market

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Two other US allies - Jordan and Kuwait - have shut down Al Jazeera bureaus this year. "They hate Al Jazeera," says chief editor Ibrahim Hilal, "because they hate transparency."

One explanation for the reluctance of these American allies to allow Al Jazeera to function is that these regimes are defensive about media coverage of their links to the US. At a time when many Arabs disparage the US government's unstinting support for Israel and its moves against Iraq, having America as a friend is delicate business.

"It's a misleading connecting of the dots," counters a Western official here who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Al Jazeera has gone after everyone, irrespective of their politics."

Syria - a country the US accuses of sponsoring terrorism - also has refused to let the network open an office, and Libya withdrew its ambassador from Qatar in last year out of pique with Al Jazeera, a step several Arab governments have taken at one time or another.

On the other hand, Egypt, a leading US partner, allows Al Jazeera to operate with relative freedom.

With the exception of Qatar - whose emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, provided $150 million to bankroll the network from 1996 to 2001 - Al Jazeera does indeed practice a take-no-prisoners brand of journalism. Although Al Jazeera denies going soft on Qatar, many observers in the region says the network treats the country and its leader with kid gloves.

"In America, we have excellent relations with US officials," says Mr. Hilal, a mild-mannered Egyptian who runs the news operations. "The problem sometimes is that regimes in the region try to convince Americans not to help Al Jazeera."

Managing Director Mohamed Jasem al-Ali says Al Jazeera in Arabic has 135,000 subscribers in the US; the network hopes many more Americans will access the English-language services. The expansion - which will include the launch of an Arabic documentary channel next spring - is partly a matter of economic necessity.

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