BAGHDAD (AP) – Shiite clerics on Friday called for the release of the Iraqi journalist sentenced to three years in prison for throwing 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 press conference by then-President Bush and 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 invading Iraq in 2003.
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 Prime Minister Nouri 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.
Iraqis also faced more violence Friday, capping 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. A bomb exploded Friday in the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Dora, killing a woman and wounding a boy, according to police reports.
A roadside bomb also struck a police patrol in eastern Baghdad, wounding four officers, police said.