National assembly angry over U.S. soldier's actions
An Iraqi official said a soldier treated him badly at a checkpoint.
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- An outraged Iraqi National Assembly demanded an apology from the U.S. government Tuesday for the rough treatment one assembly member said he received from an American soldier at a military checkpoint.
The rhetorical confrontation was another sign that relations between the two countries are trickier now that Iraq has a government of elected representatives who aren't necessarily favored or influenced by U.S. authorities or interests.
The 275-member assembly, which must pick government ministers and write a constitution, spent much of Tuesday expressing outrage over Fattah al-Sheikh's allegation and debating what demands to make of the U.S. government to redress the offense.
Al-Sheikh was shaken and crying as he struggled to tell the assembly that a U.S. soldier had manhandled him. The incident occurred at a checkpoint leading into the heavily fortified Green Zone, the central Baghdad compound where the assembly meets, he said.
"I was dragged to the ground," said al-Sheikh, a member of a small party sympathetic to rebel Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. "There were cars beside mine at the checkpoint, but I was the only one who paid this price."
Al-Sheikh and witnesses said a soldier kicked his car, pulled him from the vehicle, grabbed him by the neck and handcuffed him. When he protested that he was a member of the assembly, a soldier scoffed at the group, al-Sheikh said.
The account ignited condemnations from a cross-section of the assembly.
"Let's ask ourselves," said Falah Shnaishel, of the United Iraqi Alliance, which won the largest number of seats in the Jan. 30 election. "Is this the democracy we've been hoping for? Is this the sovereignty that we talk to the masses about?"
The U.S. military said it was investigating the allegation. Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. William Webster, the commander of U.S. troops in Baghdad, "expressed his regret over the incident" to the assembly, said Robert Callahan, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
Callahan said it was too early to know how the embassy would respond if Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari sought a formal apology. He also said it was unclear whether the incident would damage U.S.-Iraqi relations.
"Let's wait and see what the results of the investigation say," he said.
Tuesday's clash wasn't the first time that assembly meetings, which are broadcast live nationwide and covered extensively in Iraqi newspapers, have become forums for airing Iraqi grievances against the U.S. government.
During an April 3 meeting, al-Sheikh and another assembly member, Salam al-Maliky, demanded that U.S. forces free all detainees, or at least women and children, from Abu Ghraib prison.
On Tuesday, assembly members portrayed the alleged mistreatment of al-Sheikh as an insult to national pride. "An assault against a member of the national assembly is considered an assault against all Iraqis," al-Maliky said.
At least one member urged moderation.
Shiite Muslim cleric Hussein al-Sadr, a distant relative of Muqtada al-Sadr, rejected a proposal to stop meeting until the assembly's demands, which also included that the soldier allegedly involved be tried publicly, are met.
"It won't do any good for us, and we are in a very critical time," al-Sadr said. "When are we going to start writing the constitution?"
Also Tuesday in the capital, the Iraqi National Guard thwarted a suicide bomber's attack on a crowded recruiting center by forcing him to detonate the explosives early.
Still, the 11:15 a.m. explosion killed at least 13 people, most of them civilians, and wounded 40 more, a hospital official said. Other press reports put the death toll slightly lower.