By Ernesto Londoño and Zaid Sabah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 20, 2009
BAGHDAD, Feb. 19 -- Wearing leather shoes, a pressed beige suit and a scarf emblazoned with Iraq's flag, the Iraqi journalist who became a folk hero in the Arab world by slinging his shoes at President George W. Bush defended his conduct on Thursday in court.
"I did not mean to kill the leader of the occupation forces," Muntadar al-Zaidi said, speaking clearly and forcefully from a wooden cage before a packed courtroom. "I was expressing what's inside of me and what's inside the Iraqi people from north to south and from west to east."
Throwing his shoes, fastball-style, at the leader of the free world was not a crime, Zaidi argued.
Zaidi, 30, who is charged with assaulting a foreign head of state, posited that Bush's Dec. 14 trip to Baghdad was not an official visit by a foreign dignitary because he arrived in the country without notice and did not leave the Green Zone, which at the time was under U.S. control.
"I am charged now with attacking the prime minister's guest," he said stoically, making his first public remarks since the incident. "We Arabs are famous for being generous with guests. But Bush and his soldiers have been here for six years. Guests should knock on the door. Those who come sneaking in are not guests."
Roughly an hour into the hearing, the judge, Abdul Amir al-Rubaie, announced that he would postpone the proceeding until March 12 to seek an opinion from the Iraqi government about whether Bush's final visit to Baghdad was indeed an "official" one.
Zaidi, a journalist employed by the Cairo-based al-Baghdadia satellite television channel, said he was tortured by Iraqi guards who took him into custody after the incident. He bore no visible scars in court Thursday, but he was missing a tooth, which relatives said was knocked out during one of the beatings he endured in custody.
The hearing was the first time Zaidi provided a public account of the indelible moment that embarrassed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and enthralled millions of critics of the United States during the waning days of Bush's presidency.
After being meticulously searched by American guards, Zaidi said, he took a seat in the small briefing room in Maliki's office, where the news conference was to take place. "The occupation forces started annoying and provoking us because we are Iraqis, on Iraqi soil, inside the office of the Iraqi prime minister," he said.
During the news conference, Zaidi said, he became enraged as Bush provided an upbeat assessment of the security situation. "I did not know what achievements he was talking about," Zaidi said. "I was seeing a million martyrs, seas of Iraqi blood, the desecration of mosques, the raping of Iraqi women and the humiliation Iraqis endure every day, every hour. Because I am a journalist, I know all about that."
Bush smirked "icily" as he spoke, Zaidi said, and flashed a "smile with no spirit." As the news conference was winding down and the two heads of state were preparing to dine together, Zaidi said he was overtaken by rage.
"In that moment, I only saw Bush," he said. "I was feeling the blood of innocent people flow under my feet as he was smiling. I felt that he is the killer of my people, and I am one of those people. I became emotional because he's responsible for what is going on in Iraq, so I hit him with my shoe."
After narrowly missing with the first volley, the journalist added, he reached for his other shoe without thinking and hurled it toward the podium. Bush ducked, spared again.
Zaidi said his initial statements about the incident to investigators were provided as he received electric shocks.
Contrary to what he told investigators then, Zaidi said, the act was not premeditated. He denied an assertion he said he provided under duress: that he attempted to assault Bush in 2006 in Amman, the Jordanian capital.
Rubaie asked Zaidi whether he had carried out the stunt on behalf of a group. "Of course not," he replied. "What pushed me to do this were the violations against human rights carried out by occupation forces."
After the judge adjourned the hearing, the man who came to represent the visceral anger many Iraqis feel toward the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and its aftermath was whisked out of the courtroom by Iraqi police officers.
A handful of American soldiers stood silently near the entrance of the courthouse, with rifles slung over their shoulders. A few Americans in business attire who attended the hearing with badges concealed in shirt pockets stood quietly behind a throng of relatives and admirers of the defendant who gathered outside the courtroom clapping and cheering.
A uniformed Iraqi soldier, apparently moved by the moment, raised his hands in the air and joined the applause.
Some attendees left the courtroom crying. But the scene was largely jubilant, as women in black abayas ululated triumphantly, their high-pitched shrieks reverberating in the courthouse lobby.
"Imam Ali is with you, hero!" the crowd chanted, referring to the relative of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, revered by Iraqi Shiites.