Sunday, December 21, 2008

President Bush attacker ‘incensed by bullet-riddled Koran’

From December 21, 2008

THE young Iraqi journalist who hurled his shoes at President George W Bush had been incensed by a story he covered about an American soldier who used a copy of the Koran for target practice, according to his family.

Muntathar al-Zaydi, 28, who became an overnight hero in the Arab world, worked as a reporter for the popular al-Baghdadiya satellite TV station.

In May he was sent to report on an incident in Radwaniyah, west of Baghdad, in which Islam’s holy book was found riddled with bullets from an American sniper.

“He talked incessantly about the subject,” recalled his elder brother Uday. It was one of a number of assignments that appear to have radicalised Zaydi during his brief journalistic career.

“The war changed Muntathar’s psyche as a result of the horrific scenes he saw, as well as the cruel tragedies, which led to the scene we all saw at the press conference,” Uday added.

In three years at the station Zaydi witnessed many scenes of carnage, including suicide bombings and sectarian killings, his brother said. “But the incident that made Muntathar cry most was the story of Abir, the daughter of Mahmoudiya.”

It is a crime that still angers Iraqis, despite the apologies of the American command. In 2006 five American soldiers raped and killed 14-year-old Abir Janabi in Mahmoudiya, south of Baghdad. They also shot dead her mother, father and seven-year-old sister. Four of the soldiers have been tried; three were sentenced to life imprisonment and the fourth was jailed for 27 months. The fifth, who had left the army, will be tried in a US civilian court early next year.

Zaydi grew up as one of nine children in a poor Shi’ite family in the south of Baghdad. After his parents died, he started work as a labourer but eventually found work in a juice bar and studied in the evenings.

During the invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003, he fled with relatives to Diyala, a province north of Baghdad, and narrowly escaped an American airstrike that killed a family in a house nearby. He would return as a reporter to tell their story.

Back in Baghdad, he graduated from the Technical Institute, and finally landed a job at al-Baghdadiya, the Cairo-based satellite TV station, which is highly critical of the Iraqi government and the US occupation. He lived in a tiny flat in New Baghdad, a mostly Shi’ite district, where he tapped away at an antiquated computer.

Zaydi, who could face up to 15 years in jail, is now being held in the heavily protected green zone and his family has not been allowed to see him.

Uday said he had received a call from a man identifying himself only as a bodyguard of Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, who was sitting next to Bush at the press conference.

Maliki, said the man, was “feeling guilty” that Zaydi had been injured during the incident. As the news conference carried on, journalists heard screams from a nearby room where Zaydi was allegedly being beaten.

Throughout the Middle East, television stations endlessly replayed the film of Bush ducking as Zaydi threw first one shoe, then the other, saying the second was for the “women, children and orphans of Iraq”.

Demonstrations of support expressed the depth of anger at the Bush administration, but there were lighter notes. A wealthy Saudi offered $10m (£6.5m) for one of the shoes; a Turkish company that claims to have made them said last week 300,000 had been ordered.

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