BAGHDAD Muslim preachers from both sides of Iraq's once-bloody Sunni-Shi'ite divide appealed to the government on Friday to release the journalist who threw his shoes at U.S. President George W. Bush.
The family of TV reporter Muntazer al-Zaidi, meanwhile, protested at an entrance to the heavily-fortified Green Zone in Baghdad where they believe he is being held in a hospital after being badly injured during his arrest.
At Baghdad's main Shi'ite mosque, al-Kadhum, preacher Mohammed al-Shami leading Friday prayers demanded that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki free Zaidi.
"We hold them responsible for his safety," the preacher said. "They are responsible for his life, his health and psychological condition."
At Baghdad's main Sunni Arab mosque, preacher Abu-Hanifa asked Maliki for an explanation.
"From this place we call on the prime minister and ask him, 'Tell us why you have detained a person who made such a heroic and fair act? A stand that all of us should have taken a long time ago'," Uthman Raheem said in his sermon. "Why do you detain a man who stood up in the face of injustice?"
Fighting between minority Sunni Arabs who dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein and the majority Shi'ite Arabs now in ascendancy killed thousands of people during the bloodshed unleashed by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
The violence has finally begun to die down even though suicide and car bomb blasts, many attributed to Sunni Islamist al Qaeda, remain routine.
The cause of the journalist who also called Bush a "dog" at the news conference in Baghdad where he threw his shoes, narrowly missing the president, has bridged Iraq's divides.
Many Iraqis, whether Sunni or Shi'ite, blame Bush personally for the tens of thousands who died in the years of warfare.
In the western city of Falluja, a Sunni preacher praised Zaidi on Friday and called him a courageous man who honored all Iraqis with his action.
LOCATION YET UNKNOWN
Zaidi's whereabouts were unknown on Friday. He appeared on Tuesday before an investigatory judge and could face trial on charges of "aggression against a president," a crime that carries a maximum prison sentence of 15 years.
Zaidi's lawyer said the court overseeing his case had opened a new case related to alleged beating of the reporter.
Dhiaa al-Saadi, head of the Iraqi lawyers' association, said the court had accepted his request to open a new proceeding against the people who had allegedly beaten Zaidi, according to Saadi, while he was being detained and afterwards.
Saadi said he had not met with Zaidi and did not know where he was being held, but said that, according court documents, the reporter's face and body were bruised.
At one of the heavily-guarded entrances to the Green Zone, an area that houses many government offices and foreign missions, Zaidi's family and a few dozen supporters waved banners and vowed to continue to protest until he was freed.
"We know nothing about him or about his health and if he's dead or still alive. We are asking to see him," said Um Saad, one of the journalist's sisters.
His aunt, Um Zaman, broke into tears.
"When I saw them beating him on television and he shouted in pain ... We want to see him, even if I am the only one allowed in for God's sake," she said.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; writing by Michael Christie; editing by Ralph Boulton)