An Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at George Bush and called him a dog emerged yesterday as an unlikely hero among angry Arabs across the Middle East, who embraced his chosen weapon as a symbol of resistance.
A US military patrol in Najaf was pelted with shoes by Shia protesters, as crowds gathered around Iraq brandishing footwear and demanding the release of Muntadhar al-Zaidi, the television reporter whose attack on Bush at a Baghdad press conference on Sunday made him the toast of the radical Arab press.
Columnists noted that the gesture is a sign of particular contempt and recalled how Iraqis had removed their shoes to beat the statue of Saddam Hussein when Baghdad fell in 2003. In Bush’s case, the shoes have started flying even before he relinquishes his grip on power.
The US president’s valedictory tour of the two main fronts in the “war on terror”, Iraq and Afghanistan, was aimed at enhancing his legacy as he approaches his last month in office. But all the optimistic talk of progress on the battlefield was overshadowed by Zaidi’s surprise attack.
Both shoes missed their target - one went high, the president ducked the other - and Bush did his best to laugh the whole incident off. “I saw his sole,” he joked. But Bush is unlikely ever to escape the image of him cowering behind a lectern watched by an unruffled Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki. The humiliating scene will doubtless be played and replayed whenever his Iraq record is assessed.
The 28-year-old journalist at the centre of the storm appears to have made his name. The world saw Zaidi’s shoes fly and heard his cry: “That is a farewell kiss, you dog.” Last night, the shoes were being held as evidence and Zaidi was being questioned, facing a possible two years in prison or a hefty fine for insulting a foreign head of state.
Zaidi’s employer, al-Baghdadia, an Iraqi network with headquarters in Egypt, warned in a statement: “Any measures against Muntadhar will be considered the acts of a dictatorial regime.” And a head of steam seemed to be building behind a movement to have him freed as an embodiment of Iraq’s suffering.
Zaidi, an Iraqi Shia, has had the common Iraqi experience of being caught between the warring parties. He was kidnapped while walking to work just over a year ago by suspected al-Qaida members. In the weeks that followed he was detained by Iraqi forces and then American troops, as a terrorist suspect.
His brothers said it was done on the spur of the moment, but his colleagues at al-Baghdadia said he had been planning it for months. One unnamed journalist even told the New York Times website it was Zaidi’s “dream to hit Bush with shoes”. If so, the dream came half true. The shoes missed, but the throw struck deep.
Back in the news
This is not the first time Muntadhar al-Zaidi has made the news rather than simply reported it. Just over a year ago the young Iraqi Shia journalist was kidnapped as he walked to work and held for more than 48 hours. On his release he said his captors, who were suspected of being al-Qaida members, had questioned him about his work and beaten him. In January he was detained by American troops searching his building but released after a day with an apology. There was some evidence yesterday that Zaidi’s dramatic gesture against George Bush had been premeditated. Colleagues at al-Baghdadia television network where he has worked since 2005 described him as a “fervent nationalist” who hated all things American. Some al-Baghdadia employees told a French press agency that Zaidi had planned the assault on Bush for months. The reporter’s brothers said his act was one of principle, and not aimed at the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, aware that the crime of insulting the Iraqi state carries with it a potentially heavy sentence.
“Muntadhar did not mean to insult Maliki or the Iraqi government,” one of the brothers, Dhurgham al-Zaidi, told Reuters television. “Muntadhar has in his heart a message of every Iraqi which he wants to convey to the occupiers represented by the person of US president Bush and he did it to convey it.”