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Turmoil in Iraq parliament

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

Muntadhar Al Zaidi was 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 family was told to return to the court in eight days, according to the journalist's brother, Dhargham.

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

He said he and another brother were told by the investigating judge that Muntazar had "co-operated well", but that they were unable to attend the hearing and had no further details.

Followers of anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr as well as other Shi'ite and Sunni groups have staged demonstrations for the last three days demanding Al Zaidi's release.

More than 1,500 demonstrators took to the streets in the Baghdad Sunni neighbourhood of Azamiyah to demand his release. Al Zaidi was kidnapped in the same neighbourhood last year and was freed unharmed a few days later.

Al Sadr's supporters in parliament interrupted a session called to review a resolution calling for all non-US troops to withdraw from Iraq by the end of June.

Several Sadrist lawmakers demanded that the session address Al Zaidi's case and allegations that he had been beaten in custody.

Others shouted that the case was a matter for the courts, triggering a noisy argument.

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

In Washington, deputy State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the decision of what to do with Al Zaidi was up to the Iraqis.

"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," he said.

To avoid a repeat of the drama, tight security measures were introduced at a press conference yesterday between Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki and his UK counterpart Gordon Brown.

Extra security guards were brought in to monitor journalists, and anyone not appearing on a list of accredited reporters was barred, although no one was asked to remove their footwear.

Later, addressing British troops, he quipped: "I was going to say before I spoke that you should take off your shoes because the favourite thing in Iraq these days is to throw shoes at people."

One of Al Zaidi's colleagues said that he had asked the station to send lawyers to defend him, but it was not known if anyone represented him.

More than 1,000 lawyers have offered to defend him, said his attorney.

In Beirut, university students threw footwear at a Bush effigy and set it afire. In Lahore, Pakistan, 150 journalists demonstrated for Al Zaidi's release.



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