BAGHDAD – Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki moved Monday to undermine the popularity of the Iraqi who threw his shoes at President George W. Bush, saying the journalist confessed that the mastermind of the attack was a militant known for slitting his victims' throats.
Tensions over the case also spilled into parliament, as a move to oust the 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, according to the prime minister's Web site. 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 and that he had expressed no regret for throwing the shoes.
"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. 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," Uday al-Zeidi told AP Television News.
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 press conference in the 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 once in custody.
Abdul-Sattar Bayrkdar, a spokesman for the Iraqi Higher Judicial Court, said that when the investigating judge took al-Zeidi's statement last week, the journalist "did not ask to be checked by a medical committee and did not say that he was tortured during the investigation."
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.
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 lawmakers during a boisterous debate over the case last week by insulting some of them and saying, "There is no honor in leading this parliament" and threatening to resign.
On Monday, lawmakers 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 U.N. mandate expires on Dec. 31 for non-U.S. foreign troops to remain in Iraq. He backed down after opposition lawmakers 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 lawmaker Diauddin al-Fayadh said the speaker "wanted to embarrass the British when he postponed the session until Jan. 7. But when the political blocs insisted on sacking him, he attended the session to defend himself." He said they were waiting until Tuesday "either to enforce his resignation or to sack him."
Shiite and Kurdish lawmakers 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 series 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 semiautonomous Kurdish territory. Kurds wanted the city included, but al-Mashhadani supported Arabs and Turkomen who opposed the idea.