By Sudarsan Raghavan and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 15, 2008
BAGHDAD, Dec. 15 -- Arriving here on Sunday for a surprise farewell visit, President Bush staunchly defended a war that has taken far more time, money and lives than anticipated, but he received a taste of local resentment toward his policies when an Iraqi journalist hurled two shoes at him at a news conference.
Hours later, Bush made another unannounced stop, landing before dawn Monday in Afghanistan for a meeting with President Hamid Karzai at his Kabul palace.
In Iraq, Bush said the conflict "has not been easy" but was necessary for U.S. security, Iraqi stability and "world peace." He hailed a recently signed but still controversial security pact as a sign of impending victory.
"There is still more work to be done. The war is not over," Bush said, with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki next to him. "But with the conclusion of this agreement . . . it is decidedly on its way to being won."
Just after Bush finished his remarks and said "Thank you" in Arabic, an Iraqi journalist took off his shoes and threw them at Bush, one after the other.
Throwing a shoe at someone is considered the worst possible insult in Iraq and is meant to show extreme disrespect and contempt. When U.S. forces helped topple a statue of Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein after rolling into Baghdad in April 2003, jubilant Iraqis beat the statue's face with their shoes.
"This is a farewell kiss!" the man, identified as Muntadar al-Zaidi, a reporter with the Cairo-based al-Baghdadia television network, yelled in Arabic as he threw the first shoe. Bush, about 12 feet away, ducked and narrowly missed being hit. When Zaidi threw again, Maliki reached out his hand to shield the president.
Zaidi yelled "Dog, dog!" as he was surrounded by Iraqi security officers, who tackled him and began to beat him. Zaidi was later removed from the ornate room in the heavily fortified Green Zone where the news conference was taking place.
Bush was not injured and joked about the incident minutes later: "If you want the facts, it's a size 10 shoe that he threw. Thank you for your concern; do not worry about it."
Zaidi, colleagues said, was kidnapped by Shiite militiamen last year and was later released.
Bush's fourth and presumably final visit as president to Iraq was intended to highlight improving security conditions in the war-torn country. After spending about 7 1/2 hours here, he departed on Air Force One near midnight.
During the flight to Bagram Air Base, Bush joked about the "bizarre" shoe-throwing incident but also said he did not think the episode indicated broader resentment among Iraqis. "I don't think you can take one guy and say this represents a broad movement in Iraq," he said.
And Bush told reporters that the mission in Afghanistan was "the same" as the one in Iraq: "To have the young democracy develop the institutions so it can survive on its own, not to repeat the mistakes of the 1980s, which is to achieve an objective and leave." He added that the United States also aimed to "deny a safe haven for al-Qaeda."
Upon landing, Bush addressed U.S. soldiers and Marines on the tarmac before boarding a helicopter for a flight to Kabul, where he met with Karzai. The Afghan leader greeted him warmly, the Associated Press reported, but Karzai also emphasized that the visit, Bush's second to Afghanistan, came only after repeated requests. He said that he wished that Bush had more time and that the Afghan people could see Bush in person.
The veil of secrecy for the Afghanistan leg was even more opaque than that for Iraq, the trip coming as Afghanistan is being wracked by levels of violence unseen since the United States invaded in 2001.
That situation contrasts with declining violence across Iraq, which Bush referenced in describing that war as on the path to victory. Yet many areas in Iraq remain unstable, particularly in the north. Last week, at least 57 Iraqis were killed in a suicide attack at a popular restaurant outside the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
More than 4,200 members of the U.S. military have died here since the 2003 invasion; the war has cost U.S. taxpayers $576 billion so far.
The improvement in security conditions in Iraq over the past year has had little discernible impact on the mood of the American public, which has said in polls that the invasion was a mistake. Bush said in a recent interview that faulty intelligence that preceded the war was his "biggest regret," although he declined to say whether he would have changed course if he had known Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction.
On Sunday, Bush met with a series of Iraqi leaders about the recently completed security agreement, which calls for the withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of 2011.
After meeting with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani at Salam Palace, Bush hailed the security agreement as "a reminder of our friendship and as a way forward to help the Iraqi people realize the blessings of a free society."
Bush's praise for the pact is particularly notable given that the U.S. administration spent years dismissing proposals for withdrawal timelines as dangerous admissions of defeat. The agreement came after months of hard bargaining by Iraqi leaders, who insisted on a firm date for the removal of U.S. troops.
Although Bush and his aides characterize the agreement as a sign of improvement, it is still divisive and may not last. A national referendum on the pact is required in the summer; rejection by the Iraqi public could speed the withdrawal of U.S. troops. The country's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has expressed concerns about the agreement. Opponents are railing against it.
Bush previously traveled to Iraq in November 2003, June 2006 and September 2007.
Bush's farewell visits are part of a carefully orchestrated series of valedictory trips, speeches and interviews aimed at highlighting his administration's record on a variety of issues, including terrorism and the fight against AIDS. The effort has largely been overshadowed, however, by the ongoing economic crisis and by President-elect Barack Obama's preparations for his arrival at the White House.
Last week in a speech at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., Bush vigorously defended the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and argued that his administration had "laid a solid foundation" for Obama overseas. Bush also urged Obama to "stay on the offensive" against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
Obama has urged shifting U.S. troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, calling the situation in the latter country an "urgent crisis." Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Thursday in Kandahar, Afghanistan, that thousands of additional troops would head there by next summer.
Bush drew acclaim from leaders in both countries. Talabani, speaking in English, called Bush a "great friend" who had "helped to liberate" Iraq. "Thanks to him and his courageous leadership, we are here," he said.
Maliki thanked Bush for his support. "Today, Iraq is moving forward in every field," Maliki said before the shoe incident.
And Karzai said, "I and the Afghan people are very proud and honored to the profoundest depth of our hearts to have President Bush with us here today."
After the chaotic news conference, Bush went to Camp Victory, where hundreds of U.S. troops greeted him with cheers and whoops. "Thanks to you, the Iraq we're standing in today is dramatically freer, dramatically safer and dramatically better than the Iraq we found eight years ago," Bush said, positioned beneath an enormous American flag.
After Bush left Iraq, the al-Baghdadia network released a statement demanding Zaidi's release from Iraqi custody "to spare his life." It was unclear Sunday night what charges he might face for throwing the shoes.
"Any step taken against him will be a reminder of the dictatorial time and the violence and lack of freedom that Iraqis faced," the statement said.
Eggen reported from Washington. Special correspondent Qais Mizher in Baghdad contributed to this report.