Scuffle Over Ring Tone Shuts Down Legislature

Legislators walk out in protest after the Sunni parliament speaker called for a recess after the Shiite member with the disputed ring tone complained.
Legislators walk out in protest after the Sunni parliament speaker called for a recess after the Shiite member with the disputed ring tone complained. (By Wathiq Khuzaie -- Getty Images)
By Ellen Knickmeyer and K.I. Ibrahim
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 11, 2006

BAGHDAD, May 10 -- A Shiite Muslim lawmaker's cellphone ring tone -- sounding a Shiite religious chant with each call -- sparked a scuffle this week that led to a brief shutdown of Iraq's new legislature Wednesday, on what was only its second full day of business.

A confrontation Monday between the bodyguard of lawmaker Ghufran al-Saidi and the security detail attached to the Sunni Muslim speaker of parliament, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, prompted a TV blackout of the session, an abrupt adjournment and a walkout by some legislators.

An outraged Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric and militia leader whose party includes Saidi, considered but apparently backed away from a boycott of the fledgling parliament over the spat, his aides indicated. The aides and Saidi said later that they were satisfied by a pledge of an investigation.

Playing out in the midst of the Sunni-Shiite power struggle that claims dozens of lives almost every day in Iraq, the ring-tone clash illustrated the volatility of the country's sectarian tensions, the ease with which they can be set off and the inexperience of the country's new leaders in dealing with them.

The squabble started Monday in the lobby outside Iraq's parliament hall when Saidi's cellphone rang as Mashhadani was giving a television interview nearby, Saidi told lawmakers and reporters.

Mashhadani's bodyguards asked Saidi's bodyguard, who was holding her phone, to silence it, and the aide hung up on the call, Saidi said. When the disconnected caller called back, the parliament speaker's guards attacked Saidi's bodyguard and beat him, she said.

Saidi, who wears the head scarf of conservative Muslim women, said the Sunni guards were angered by the Shiite chant. She acknowledged that she joined the brawl.

At Wednesday's session of parliament, when Saidi took the floor to complain at length, Mashhadani eventually ordered her microphone turned off, TV cameras shut down and the session recessed.

Some lawmakers walked out to protest what they called the speaker's brusque behavior. Mashhadani had shown himself "unable to steer the session" and needed more experience, said Mithal al-Lusi, an independent Sunni lawmaker.

Nourideen Hiyali, a member of Mashhadani's party, said that the speaker had meant to apologize at the start of Wednesday's session for Monday's brawl but that Saidi arrived too late.

After the session resumed behind closed doors, Mashhadani told lawmakers that his chief bodyguard had been intercepted Tuesday by a car full of gunmen, shot and wounded, lawmakers told news agencies. Mashhadani and his allies did not publicly link Tuesday's attack to Monday's brawl.

Special correspondent Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company