BAGHDAD — About 100 people staged a protest in Baghdad on Wednesday to demand the release of the Iraqi TV journalist who threw his shoes at ex-President George W. Bush.
A lawyer for Muntadhar al-Zeidi, 30, said the defense would ask for a postponement when court convenes Thursday in western Baghdad.
"We will also demand his release because his act was spontaneous against the president of the state that occupies Iraq," lawyer Khalid al-Izzi told The Associated Press.
Al-Zeidi, who works for a satellite station based in Cairo, Egypt, has been in custody since the Dec. 14 outburst at Bush's joint news conference with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad.
The obscure 30-year-old reporter was transformed into a cult figure across the Muslim world, where thousands hailed him as a hero and demanded his release for what they considered a justified act of patriotism.
But al-Maliki was deeply embarrassed by the assault against an American president who had stood by him during the worst of the violence when some Arab leaders were quietly urging the U.S. to oust him.
Al-Zeidi's lawyers say he faces charges of assaulting a foreign leader with intent to harm, which carries up to 15 years in prison. Iraqi courts have the power to change the charges once the trial is under way.
'A symbol for this nation'
In Kazimiyah, a Shiite neighborhood of north Baghdad, about 100 people heard hard-line Shiite cleric Hadi al-Khalisi demand that the journalist be set free.
"The one who wants to try al-Zeidi, he should realize that he will face grave consequences," al-Khalisi said. "God willing, Muntadhar al-Zeidi will be set free and we will receive him. He will be a symbol for this nation.
Protesters carried banners demanding freedom "for the true son of Iraq." Another banner said al-Zeidi's act "is appreciated by all the honest people in the world."
Al-Zeidi's brother, Durgham, attended the protest and said about 50 of the journalist's relatives will attend Thursday's trial.
"We have fears that this case will be politicized," the brother said. "We are worried that the Iraqi government will impose the kind of sentence that appeals to the Americans."
The journalist's colleagues and relatives have expressed concern about his welfare, saying he was severely beaten after Iraqi security guards wrestled him to the floor and dragged him from the press conference.
The case's investigating judge has said the journalist was struck about the face and eyes, apparently by security agents after he hurled his shoes, forcing Bush to duck for cover.
Al-Izzi said the defense team would ask for a postponement because it had not received key documents, including a medical report. He also said the defense would argue that the charges are too severe for such an act.
"We will demand a reduction in the charge which is that he was threatening the life of a visiting president with premeditation," the lawyer said. "We will argue that Bush was not in a declared official visit between two sovereign countries. In fact, Bush was visiting an occupied country and al-Zeidi was trying to express his personal rejection to the occupation."
Deadly pilgrimage trip
Also Wednesday, British and Iraqi officials said seven Shiite pilgrims returning home from religious ceremonies were killed when their bus collided with a British military vehicle in southern Iraq. More than two dozen were injured in the late Tuesday crash.
The pilgrims were going home from the Shiite holy city of Karbala when the accident occurred on the outskirts of Basra, said Maj. Gen. Mohammed Jawad Huwaidi, the top Iraqi military official in Basra. He said 27 were injured.
The British Defense Ministry said the armored vehicle was on a routine night patrol and was parked when the bus drove into the back of it. The ministry statement echoed Huwaidi's figure of seven killed but said only several others were injured.
Britain has 4,000 troops based on the outskirts of Basra but plans to withdraw them by the end of May.
Hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims converged on Karbala last week to celebrate the end of 40 days of mourning that follow the anniversary of the seventh-century death of one of Shiite Islam's most revered saints, the Prophet Muhammad's grandson Hussein. Many of the pilgrims began their trip home Monday.
More than 60 pilgrims were killed in attacks as they made their way to and from Karbala. Violence in Iraq has declined to a five-year low, but periodic attacks continue throughout the country.
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