Iraqi parliament in turmoil over shoe tosser

Thursday, December 18, 2008

BAGHDAD -- Chaos erupted in Iraq's parliament Wednesday over the jailing of a reporter who threw his shoes at President Bush, with lawmakers loyal to an anti-American cleric demanding his freedom. The parliament speaker responded by threatening to resign.

Muntadhar al-Zeidi, a correspondent for an Iraqi-owned television station based in Cairo, Egypt, had been expected to appear Wednesday before a judge at Iraq's main court as a first step in a process that could end in a criminal trial.

Instead, the judge visited him in his jail cell and the family was told to return to the court in eight days, according to the journalist's brother, Dhargham al-Zeidi.

"That means my brother was severely beaten and they fear that his appearance could trigger anger at the court," he said.

However, Iraqi officials and another brother have denied that the journalist suffered severe injuries after he was wrestled to the floor when he hurled both his shoes from close range at Bush during a news conference Sunday in Baghdad. Bush ducked out of the way both times.

Al-Zeidi could face two years' imprisonment for insulting a foreign leader. When he threw the shoes, he shouted at Bush in Arabic, "This is your farewell kiss, you dog! This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq."

--Associated Press

His act of defiance won the obscure television reporter hero status in Iraq and throughout the Muslim world, much of which holds Bush personally responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis since the invasion.

In Pakistan, demonstrators held a candlelight vigil outside the U.S. Consulate in Lahore on Wednesday, carrying photographs of al-Zeidi and hand-painted signs saying things like "Hush, Hush Bush. We Hate You." And on a road in Karachi, a man painted "10" inside a large outline of a foot, with an arrow pointing to "BUSH" -- a reference to Bush's joke about the shoe's size.

At a small rally outside the Iraqi Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, the head of a civil servant union displayed a pair of shoes he said he intends to send to al-Zeidi as a show of support.

In Iraq, followers of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr as well as other Shiite and Sunni groups have staged demonstrations for the last three days demanding al-Zeidi's release.

The Sadrists particularly hope to exploit public sympathy for the reporter to regain political momentum they lost after their failure to stop the U.S.-Iraq security agreement, which parliament approved last month. The deal allows U.S. troops to remain in Iraq until 2012.

On Wednesday, al-Sadr's supporters in parliament interrupted a session in which lawmakers were to review a resolution calling for all non-U.S. troops to leave Iraq by the end of June.

Several Sadrist lawmakers interrupted, demanding that the session address al-Zeidi's case and allegations that he had been beaten in custody. A noisy argument broke out after other lawmakers shouted that the case was a matter for the courts, according to Wisam al-Zubaidi, an adviser to Khalid al-Attiyah, parliament's deputy speaker.

With legislators screaming at one another, speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni, shouted: "There is no honor in leading this parliament and I announce my resignation."

Al-Mashhadani, who has not taken a public position on al-Zeidi, has a history of eccentric behavior and it was unclear whether the resignation was serious. Two years ago, the Shiite bloc ousted al-Mashhadani after a series of outbursts, but his fellow Sunnis forced his reinstatement.

An official in the speaker's office confirmed al-Mashhadani's announcement but said he was uncertain whether he meant what he said. The official said the speaker may have been made the remark because he was upset. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

Even if the speaker follows through, his departure would not effect the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The prime minister was said to have been furious and personally humiliated by the shoe-throwing incident, considering it a breach of Arab rules of hospitality.

In Washington, deputy State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Wednesday the decision about what to do with al-Zeidi is up to the Iraqis.

"Iraq is a democracy, these types of things happen in a democracy," Wood said. "That situation is going to have to work itself through the Iraqi judicial process. It's an Iraqi matter, so it should be left for the Iraqis to deal with."

Nevertheless, the outburst in parliament as well as street demonstrations reflect the passions stirred up by the incident across Iraq, where many people harbor conflicting views of the U.S. presence.

Iraqis are supposed to vote in a referendum next summer about whether to accept the U.S.-Iraq security deal, and the Sadrists hope to use the al-Zeidi case in their campaign against the agreement. The Sadrists want the Americans to leave immediately and without conditions.

Many Iraqis cheered the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein and remain apprehensive about whether Iraq's squabbling politicians can hold the country together after the Americans leave.

But most Iraqis are also fed up with more than five years of what they consider foreign military occupation and the violence -- which has been reduced but has not ended.

Clearly, though, al-Zeidi's action, which has been aired repeatedly on Arab satellite television stations, struck a nationalist chord among many Iraqis, who long to take full control of their country. The images were cathartic for many in the Middle East, who have for years felt their own leaders kowtow to the American president.

Thousands have taken to the streets in the days since al-Zeidi's arrest, heralding his actions and calling for his release.

About 1,500 people demonstrated Wednesday in the Baghdad Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah to demand the reporter's release. Al-Zeidi was kidnapped in the same neighborhood last year and was freed unharmed a few days later.

"This is a natural reaction to the American acts of tyranny and occupation in Iraq," said demonstrator Khalil al-Obeidi.

Protesters carried banners denouncing al-Zeidi's arrest, news photos of his lunging forward toward Bush and a cartoon of al-Maliki as a soccer goal keeper trying to catch flying shoes.

Associated Press Writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report.

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