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Iraq assembly boils after phone fight, gun attack

Written by: Staff

BAGHDAD, May 10 (Reuters) Feuding among Iraq's sectarian factions erupted in parliament today, as a scuffle over a mobile phone and an attack on the speaker's bodyguard served to highlight the violence lurking behind talks on a new government.

Angry words between the Sunni speaker and a Shi'ite woman member about the telephone incident -- featuring a controversial religious ringtone -- led to a walkout, a television blackout and the speaker revealing the hit squad shooting of his guard.

With Sunnis and Shi'ites still at odds over forming a unity government that might end communal bloodshed, the friction has broad implications and lawmakers were keen afterwards to play down speculation that Tuesday's attempt to kill the speaker's bodyguard might be linked to Monday's rumpus over the phone.

Sources in the dominant Shi'ite Alliance, however, said radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr threatened to have his followers shun the coalition being formed by fellow Alliance leader Nuri al-Maliki in response to the speaker's guards beating an aide to a pro-Sadr member of parliament to silence her telephone.

Sadr stopped short, however, of demanding the speaker step down.

The election last month of Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a former military officer and physician, was part of a complex sectarian geometry to share out top jobs, including president and prime minister, before forming a grand coalition government.

So any challenge to him could upset a process that has taken five months since December's election and is not over yet.

GUN ATTACK Nevertheless, so incensed were Alliance lawmakers by the scuffle in the lobby of parliament on Monday, as well as by perceived Sunni bias on the part of the new speaker, that they were ready to give Mashhadani a rough ride at what was only the second full, normal sitting of parliament since the election.

But, Alliance sources said, many preferred to cool tempers and shelve their protest when he told them his chief bodyguard had narrowly survived a shooting in Baghdad the previous day.

The Shi'ite Islamist member of parliament whose ringing telephone started the week's controversy said she was satisfied with a promise of a full investigation into the incident.

Gufran al-Saidi, a veiled Sadr supporter, told Reuters that Mashhadani's guards beat one of her aides when her phone, being held by the aide, went off loudly -- twice -- as Mashhadani was filming a television interview in the lobby of parliament.

That the ringtone, as she described it, played a Shi'ite religious chant added to the sectarian tension over the scuffle.

One journalist said a guard struck the aide with a pistol.

A source close to Mashhadani said the speaker, who switched off Saidi's microphone and television cameras when she raised the incident, would not comment on speculation Sadr's Mehdi Army militia might have been behind Tuesday's attack on his guard.

Many Sunnis dismiss Sadr's denials his men are behind some of the hundreds of sectarian killings every month in Baghdad.

The police lieutenant colonel was driving alone in the capital on Tuesday morning when a car barred his way and gunmen opened fire.

The source close to the speaker, and several Sunni lawmakers, insisted the bodyguard was still alive in hospital.

Adding to the sense of division and mystery, however, Saidi and other Shi'ite members of parliament insisted that Mashhadani had told the chamber that the man had been killed in the attack.


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