Journalists in Iraq cried foul on Sunday over what they say are dangerous threats by a top Shiite political leader in a war of words over a deadly bank heist in the capital.
Jalal Eddin Saghir, a leader of the formerly Iran-based Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), is accused of making violent threats against journalist Ahmad Abdel Hussein during a Friday sermon over an article in the state-run Al-Sabah newspaper alluding to SIIC links to the robbery.
The July 28 robbery in central Baghdad, in which eight guards were killed and 3.8 million dollars was stolen, became a political football after it was revealed the alleged leader of the robbers was a bodyguard of Vice President Adel Abdel Mehdi, an SIIC leader.
"The threat from Jalal Eddin Saghir at Buratha mosque was clear, especially when he said from the pulpit this journalist was a nobody," Ziyad Al-Ajili, director of media watchdog the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, told AFP.
"When somebody says someone is a nobody it means he has no backing, it's a provocation to kill him," Ajili said, adding the watchdog is planning a protest march through the capital, though it has yet to set a date.
Hussein's August 4 article said the SIIC could have staged the robbery to raise money for national elections in January 2010.
"We know they know that we know that the stolen money was going to turn into blankets to be distributed to voters," the article said, referring to accusations SIIC bribed voters with blankets in provincial elections earlier this year.
But Saghir denied he was trying to incite violence with his Friday sermon, and had only threatened to sue the newspaper.
"Press freedom is absolutely holy for me," he told AFP.
"There are some people who are trying to attack the profession of journalism through defamation. What we are talking about now (the August 4 article) is a violation of press freedom."
Al-Sabah, in a Sunday editorial, called for Iraq's top Shiite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani and top government officials to intervene to defuse the row.
"The language that Saghir used was full of insults and incitements agains Al-Sabah newspaper, its editors and one of its reporters. This is not how Islamic discourse should be," it said.
Leaders of SIIC, which dominated provincial government in central and southern Iraq until earlier this year, have accused political opponents of blowing the suspected involvement of Medhi's guard out of proportion in a bid to harm the party's prospects in upcoming elections.