December 22, 2008
BAGHDAD – Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki moved Monday to undermine the popularity of the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at President George W. Bush.
In a posting on his website, Al-Maliki claimed journalist Muntadhar al-Zeidi has apologized for the attack and confessed to carrying it out at the behest of a known militant.
However, the journalist’s family says al-Zeidi was tortured into apologizing for throwing his shoes at Bush – a gesture considered a major insult in Iraqi culture – and has told a brother that he would do it again if he had the chance.
Meanwhile, tensions over the case also spilled into parliament, as a move to oust the chamber’s abrasive Sunni speaker delayed a key decision on whether non-U.S. foreign troops will be allowed to stay in Iraq beyond New Year’s Eve.
Al-Maliki said that in a letter of apology to him, Muntadhar al-Zeidi wrote that a known militant had induced him to throw the shoes.
“He revealed … that a person provoked him to commit this act, and that person is known to us for slitting throats,” al-Maliki said on the prime minister’s website. The alleged instigator was not named and neither al-Maliki nor any of his officials would elaborate.
The journalist’s family denied the claim and alleged that al-Zeidi was coerced into writing the letter, in which he was said to have requested a pardon for “the big and ugly act that I perpetrated.”
Al-Zeidi’s brother Dhargham said that it was “unfair” of al-Maliki to make the allegation about the throat-slitter and described the prime minister as “a sectarian man who is destroying the Iraqi people.”
Earlier, another brother said he met the journalist in prison. “He told me that he has no regret for what he did and that he would do it again,” Uday al-Zeidi told The Associated Press.
He said he visited his brother Sunday and found him missing a tooth and with cigarette burns on his ears. He also said his brother told him that jailers also doused him with cold water while he was naked.
“When I saw him yesterday, there were bruises on his face and body,” Uday al-Zeidi told AP Television News.
“He told me that they used an iron bar to hit him when they took him out of the press conference room. He told me that he began screaming and thought all those at the press conference would have heard his voice.”
The investigating judge, Dhia al-Kinani, has said that the journalist was beaten around the face and eyes when he was wrestled to the ground after throwing the shoes at Bush during a Dec. 14 news conference in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone. The judge said al-Zeidi’s face was bruised but he did not provide a further description.
There has been no independent corroboration that al-Zeidi was abused in jail.
Al-Zeidi’s trial on charges of assaulting a foreign leader is scheduled to begin Dec. 31. A conviction would carry a sentence of up to two years in prison. Al-Kinani said last week that he does not have the legal option to drop the case and that al-Zeidi can receive a pardon only if he is convicted.
The hurling of the shoes turned the little-known Iraqi journalist into an international celebrity and led to huge street demonstrations in support of him both at home and abroad, including Canada.
It also brought to a head a simmering dispute between the Iraqi parliament’s abrasive, erratic Sunni speaker and Kurdish and Shiite lawmakers seeking to oust him.
The speaker, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, had irked legislators during a boisterous debate over the case last week by insulting some of them and saying, “There is no honour in leading this parliament” and threatening to resign.
On Monday, legislators unsuccessfully tried to vote al-Mashhadani out of office. Instead they gave him until Tuesday to resign or face an ouster vote later that day.
After the heated closed-door session, al-Mashhadani attempted to force the body to withdraw its opposition to him by threatening to call a recess until Jan. 7 – a week after the UN mandate expires on Dec. 31 for non-U.S. foreign troops to remain in Iraq. He backed down after opposition legislators gathered enough signatures to force a vote against him.
Britain plans to withdraw its 4,000 troops from southern Iraq by the end of May. Australia, El Salvador, Estonia and Romania also have far smaller contingents. U.S. troops can remain in Iraq until the end of 2011 under a separate agreement reached this year.
Shiite and Kurdish legislators believe they have the required 139 votes in the 275-member parliament to remove al-Mashhadani. If he is ousted, he will be replaced by one of his two deputies, and parliament can then approve the resolution.
Two years ago, the Shiite bloc ousted al-Mashhadani after a string of outbursts, but his fellow Sunnis forced them to reinstate him.
Al-Mashhadani clashed with Kurdish legislators this year over whether the oil-rich city of Kirkuk should be incorporated into the semi-autonomous Kurdish territory. Kurds wanted the city included, but al-Mashhadani supported Arabs and Turkomen who opposed the idea.