- The Washington Times - Friday, March 13, 2009

BAGHDAD (AP) - Shiite clerics on Friday called for the release of the Iraqi journalist sentenced to three years in prison for throwing his shoes at George W. Bush.

Sheik Suhail al-Iqabi, a follower of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, said the sentence against Muntadhar al-Zeidi is “a verdict against the Iraqi people who refuse the American occupation” of Iraq.

Efforts to release detained Sadrists and others who have opposed the American presence in the country also should be expedited, al-Iqabi said in his sermon in Baghdad’s Shiite stronghold of Sadr City.

Al-Zeidi’s brazen act during a December news conference by then-President Bush and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has turned the 30-year-old reporter into a folk hero across the Arab world, where the former U.S. president is reviled for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

On Thursday, a court sentenced him to three years in prison on an assault conviction. Al-Zeidi had pleaded innocent and said his action was prompted by anger over Bush’s claims of victory in a war that has devastated his country.

The speed of the trial _ which took two relatively brief hearings _ was likely to feed widespread suspicion among Iraqis that al-Maliki’s U.S.-backed government orchestrated the process, although defense lawyers said they had no evidence of interference.

Another Shiite cleric in the Sadrist stronghold of Kufa also condemned the prison sentence.

“We just wonder on what law the judge has based his sentence. Was this verdict taken to satisfy their masters?” Sheik Abdul-Hadi al-Mohammadawi said during a sermon. “Why do you not try the Americans who are killing the Iraqi people in cold blood?”

The reporter’s detention sparked mass protests in the Arab world and copycat protests elsewhere. But since December, demonstrations on al-Zeidi’s behalf have drawn few participants.

Worshippers chanted slogans demanding the release of all detainees and burned American flags after Friday prayers in Sadr City in what has become a weekly protest.

Iraq’s Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, meanwhile, expressed concern about an uptick in violence after a deadly week in which Baghdad saw two of the deadliest attacks in months. The suicide bombings on Sunday and Tuesday killed a total of more than 60 people.

“The attacks that happened over the past few days represent a grave deterioration in the security situation and this issue should be reviewed,” he said in a statement issued by the presidential council.

He said the three-member council led by President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, would ask Iraq’s prime minister and the general commander of armed forces to summon senior security officials to find out how the attacks could have happened and to make sure they won’t be repeated.

In violence reported by Iraqi police on Friday, a bomb exploded in the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Dora, killing a woman and wounding a boy.

A roadside bomb also struck a police patrol in eastern Baghdad, wounding four officers.

Amnesty International, meanwhile, called on the Iraqi government to stop the execution of 128 prisoners on death row, saying the country’s judicial system is ill-equipped to provide a fair trial.

The international rights organization said the Iraqi Supreme Judicial Council had informed it that authorities were planning to carry out the death sentences in batches of 20 per week.

At least 34 of 285 people sentenced to death were executed last year, while at least 33 of 199 people sentenced to death were executed in 2007 and 65 people were put to death in 2006, according to the group.

“Iraq’s creaking judicial system is simply unable to guarantee fair trials in ordinary criminal cases, and even less so in capital cases, with the result, we fear, that numerous people have gone to their death after unfair trials,” said Amnesty’s regional director, Malcolm Smart.


Associated Press Writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.

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