By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
BAGHDAD, Dec. 15 -- In hurling footwear and insults at President Bush, Muntadar al-Zaidi expressed what relatives said were his own frustrations with American policy in Iraq and made himself into an overnight celebrity in the Arab world.
After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Zaidi was distraught over the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. He interviewed widows and orphans in his work as a journalist, once telling an editor that he hoped to meet Bush "and hit him with my shoes." Earlier this year, Zaidi was arrested during an American raid in his neighborhood and released a day later. And in March he covered a U.S. airstrike in which children were trapped under the rubble.
"This incident made him very angry against the American forces," recalled Maithan al-Zaidi, 28, his brother.
On Monday, people across the Middle East applauded Zaidi for expressing their anger at the Bush administration. In cafes and online chat rooms, people joked about the incident with glee, releasing years of frustration with U.S. policies. Thousands of Iraqis demonstrated in the streets demanding his release from Iraqi custody.
Iraqi authorities have not charged Zaidi, but they have arrested him for "his aggressive actions against an official and a visitor of the Iraqi government," Yaseen Majeed, a top media adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said in a statement. Majeed called Zaidi "a disgrace to journalism" and said he would be handed over to the Iraqi justice system for punishment.
Munqeth al-Faroon, an Iraqi court official, said Zaidi could be sentenced to up to seven years in prison for insulting the nation's leader. On Sunday, at a news conference held by Maliki and Bush, Zaidi threw his shoes, one after the other, at the U.S. president, shouting, "This is a farewell kiss!" As Iraqi security guards converged on Zaidi, he yelled: "Dog! Dog!"
U.S. officials said they would leave it to the Iraqi government to prosecute Zaidi.
The shoe assault turned Bush's trip to Iraq into a public relations fiasco, overshadowing the White House's message of impending victory in a long and unpopular war. The incident served as a bookend to Bush's flamboyant 2003 arrival aboard an aircraft carrier decorated with a banner reading "Mission Accomplished," which was meant as a declaration of victory but soon became a symbol of U.S. hubris as the war continued.
Bush responded to the shoe-throwing by quipping that the shoes were "size 10" and joking to reporters, "I didn't know what the guy said, but I saw his sole."
He rejected suggestions that the incident symbolized wider Iraqi displeasure with his administration and the conduct of the war. "I don't think you can take one guy throwing shoes and say this represents a broad movement in Iraq," Bush told reporters aboard Air Force One after leaving Baghdad. "You can try to do that if you want to. I don't think it would be accurate."
But many people are doing that -- in the blogosphere, on television, in editorials. Users of the Facebook networking Web site created groups in support of Zaidi, including one called "I'm a fan of the great hero who hit Bush with his shoes in Baghdad" that had more than 9,000 members Monday night.
The al-Baghdadia television network, which employs Zaidi, broadcast his photo and martial anthems. Arab satellite TV channels and Web sites repeatedly played the scene of Bush ducking as the shoes flew past.
In Libya, a charity led by Moammar Gaddafi's daughter Aisha announced it would give Zaidi an award for bravery and urged the Iraqi government to free him. "What he did represents a victory for human rights across the world," said the organization, Wa Attassimou.
"The flying shoe speaks more for Arab public opinion than all the despots/puppets that Bush meets with during his travels in the Middle East," Asad Abu Khalil, a Lebanese American college professor, wrote in his blog, the Angry Arab News Service (http://angryarab.blogspot.com).
A Saudi businessman offered to buy either of the shoes thrown at Bush for $10 million, Saudi television reported.
In Cairo, Egyptians in the middle-class neighborhood of Bulak laughed as they recounted Zaidi throwing his shoes at Bush.
"It was especially gratifying that it happened toward the end of his presidency, because this is how he will be forever remembered," Nermine Gabaly, a 32-year-old homemaker, said with a smile. "The Iraqi reporter should not be penalized for doing this," she added. "He just expressed his emotions as an Iraqi citizen."
During college, Zaidi, whose family is originally from the southern city of Nasiriyah, was the head of the student union. Unmarried, he had a reputation for jumping on stories that took him to the front lines of Iraq's conflict. He declined a promotion because he didn't want to be cooped up inside an office, said his brother Durgham al-Zaidi, a cameraman.
"When we see a family that has experienced tragedy, we look at them as if we had lost one of our own relatives," Durgham said.
On the air, Zaidi referred to the U.S. military presence as "the occupation" and was known to call Bush "the devil." Saif al-Deen al-Kaisi, an editor at al-Baghdadia, recalled a conversation a year and half ago in which Zaidi said, "I hope to meet Bush and hit him with my shoes."
Zaidi opposed a recently signed U.S.-Iraq security agreement that will extend the presence of U.S. troops for at least three years. "Any honest Iraqi patriot rejected the agreement," Maithan al-Zaidi said.
Zaidi had returned to Baghdad two weeks ago after spending two months in Lebanon attending a journalism course, his relatives said. Two hours before the news conference, he spoke to Maithan and made plans to have dinner with him afterward, Maithan said. He added that there was no discussion of throwing shoes at Bush.
After the incident, Iraqi guards wrestled Zaidi, his colleague Waad al-Taie and another journalist to the ground, Taie said. "They beat us and said, 'You are a group of conspirators against this visit,' " he recalled. "I told them: 'I had no idea about all this. He surprised me just as much as you.' " Taie said a U.S. official asked the Iraqis to release him and the other journalist.
"Muntadar has not joined any party or movement," Maithan said. "Nobody paid him to do this. His love for Iraq made him do this."
In the southern city of Najaf, several hundred followers of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr took to the streets Monday, describing Zaidi as a religious warrior. They threw shoes at U.S. military Humvees but the Americans did not respond, witnesses said. In Sadr's Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City, protesters burned American flags and chanted, "Bush, Bush listen well: We pushed you out with two shoes."
But Hassan Jarrah, a government employee in Najaf, said that Zaidi should have "expressed his personal views of protest by words, not through assaulting President Bush."
"What he did is condemned by all decent, reasonable people," Jarrah added. "We should show to the Iraqi public and the world at large that we Iraqis do not condone such acts, and we are innocent of his actions."
Zaidi's brothers said they had received scores of offers from lawyers to represent him. Iraqi politicians have also expressed their support, but Durgham said he was worried about his brother. "If in front of TV cameras, they are beating him, can you imagine what they are doing to him behind the cameras?"
Correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer in Cairo; staff writer Dan Eggen
in Washington; special correspondents Sherine el-Bayoumi in Cairo, Qais Mizher and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad, and Saad Sarhan in Najaf; and other Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.