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Iraq parliament in shoe uproar

A Shiite cleric's allies demanded a journalist's release. A Sunni leader's reaction? "I quit!"

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

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

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

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

Iraqi officials and another brother have denied that the journalist suffered severe injuries after he was wrestled to the floor Sunday after hurling one shoe and then the other from close range at Bush during a news conference in Baghdad.

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."

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

Followers of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr as well as other Shiite and Sunni groups have staged demonstrations for three days demanding 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 the parliament approved last month. The deal allows U.S. troops to remain in Iraq until 2012.

Yesterday, the parliament was to review a resolution calling for all non-U.S. troops to leave Iraq by the end of June. Several Sadrist lawmakers interrupted the session, demanding that it address Zeidi's case and allegations that he had been beaten in custody.

A noisy dispute 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!"

Mashhadani, who has not taken a public position on Zeidi, has a history of eccentric behavior, and it was unclear whether the resignation was serious.

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