Monday, December 15, 2008

"I swear by God that all Iraqis with their different nationalities are glad about this act..."

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Photo by Karim Kadim/Associated Press:

"A shoe was raised during a protest against President Bush in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City in Baghdad on Monday. "

"Shoe-Hurling Iraqi Becomes a Folk Hero"


December 15, 2008

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BAGHDAD — An Iraqi journalist who hurled his shoes at President Bush and called him a dog became a huge celebrity in the Arab world and beyond on Monday, with many supporters exalting him for what they called a courageous act in the face of American arrogance about the war.


An Eyewitness Account from Atheer Kakan, an Iraqi reporter for The New York Times

Barely 24 hours after the journalist, Muntader al-Zaidi, was tackled and arrested for his actions at a Baghdad news conference, the shoe-throwing incident was generating front-page headlines and continuing television news coverage. A thinly veiled glee could be discerned in much of the reporting, especially in the places where anti-American sentiment runs deepest.

In Sadr City, the sprawling Baghdad suburb that has seen some of the most intense fighting between insurgents and American soldiers since the 2003 invasion, thousands of people marched in his defense. In Syria, he was hailed as a hero. In Libya, he was given an award for courage.

Mr. Zaidi, a correspondent for an independent Iraqi television station, Al-Baghdadia, remained in Iraqi custody on Monday. While he has not been formally charged, Iraqi officials said he faced up to seven years in prison if convicted of committing an act of aggression against a visiting head of state.

Hitting someone with a shoe is a deep insult in the Arab world, signifying that the person being struck is as low as the dirt underneath the sole of a shoe. Compounding the insult were Mr. Zaidi’s words as he hurled his footwear at President Bush: “This is a gift from the Iraqis; this is the farewell kiss, you dog!” While calling someone a dog is never polite, among Arabs, who traditionally consider dogs unclean, the words were an even stronger slight.

The incident has been a source of embarrassment for the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who, in a statement on Monday, called the shoe throwing a “a shameful savage act” and demanded a public apology from Al-Baghdadia.

“The act damaged the reputation of Iraqi journalists and journalism in general,” the statement said.

As of Monday night, no apology from the station was forthcoming. Instead, the network posted an image of Mr. Zaidi, 29, in the corner of the screen for much of the day. Viewers were invited to phone in their opinions, and the vast majority said they approved of his actions.

Opponents of the continued American presence in Iraq turned Mr. Zaidi’s detention Monday into a rallying cry. Support for the detained journalist crossed religious, ethnic and class lines in Iraq — vaulting him to near folk hero status.

“I swear by God that all Iraqis with their different nationalities are glad about this act,” said Yaareb Yousif Matti, a 45-year-old teacher from Mosul, a northern city that has is contested by Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens.

In Samarra, one of the centers of the Sunni insurgency against American forces, Mr. Zaidi received nearly unanimous approval from people interviewed Monday.

“Although that action was not expressed in a civilized manner, it showed the Iraqi’s feelings, which oppose American occupation,” said Dr. Qutaiba Rajaa, a 58-year old physician.

In Sadr City, thousands of marchers on Monday called for an immediate American withdrawal from Iraq. The demonstrators burned American flags and waved shoes attached to long poles in a show of support for Mr. Zaidi.

In Najaf, several hundred people gathered on a central square to protest President Bush’s Sunday visit to Iraq, and demonstrators threw their shoes at a passing American military convoy.

But praise for Mr. Zaidi was not universal. His action ran counter to deeply held Iraqi traditions of hospitality toward guests, even if they are enemies. Those who have cooperated with or welcomed the American presence in Iraq were more apt to side with the government in their condemnation.

Ahmad Abu Risha, the leader of the Awakening Council in Anbar Province, a group of local tribal leaders that started a wave of popular opposition against Al Qaeda fighters in Iraq, said that he opposed what happened “because the American president is the guest of all Iraqis. The Iraqi government has to choose good journalists to attend such conferences.”

“This is unsuitable action by an Iraqi journalist,’ said Kamal Wahbi, a 49-year-old engineer in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya, where pro-American sentiment is strong. “His action served terrorism and radical national extremism. I think he could send the same message by asking Bush embarrassing questions.”

Witnesses said that Mr. Zaidi had been severely beaten by security officers on Sunday after being tackled at the press conference and dragged out. One of his brothers, Maythem al-Zaidi, said Monday that the family had not heard from Mr. Zaidi since his arrest, and that a police officer who picked up Mr. Zaidi’s cellphone at midnight on Sunday had threatened the family.


An Eyewitness Account from Atheer Kakan, an Iraqi reporter for The New York Times

It was unclear whether Mr. Zaidi had planned his actions beforehand, or whether — as his brother said — he had become infuriated by President’s Bush’s words of farewell to Iraqis and made a spontaneous decision to insult him.

Saif al-Deen, 25, an editor at the Baghdadia television network in Cairo, said Mr. Zaidi had been planning some sort of protest against President Bush for nearly a year.

“I remember at the end of 2007, he told me, ‘You will see how I will take revenge on the criminal Bush in my personal way about the crimes that he has committed against innocent Iraqi people,” Mr. Deen said. He said he tried to talk his friend out of doing anything at the time, but that “he insisted he would do it.”

Around the Arab world, the shoe throwing became the topic of the moment. In Syria, Mr. Zaidi’s face was broadcast on the state television network, with Syrians calling in throughout the day to share their admiration for his gesture. Lawyers volunteered to represent him by the dozen.

In Lebanon, reactions varied by political affiliation, but curiosity about the episode was universal. An American visitor to a school in Beirut’s southern suburb, where the Shiite militant group Hezbollah is popular, was besieged with questions from teachers and students alike, who wanted to know what Americans thought about the insult.

“It’s the talk of the city,” said Ibrahim Mousawi, a Beirut-based journalist and political analyst affiliated with Hezbollah. “Everyone is proud of this man, and they’re saying he did it in our name.”

In Libya, Mr. Zaidi was given a bravery award on Monday by a Libyan charity group run by the daughter of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, Libya’s leader, Reuters reported.

The charity group, Wa Attassimou, also urged the Iraqi government to release Mr. Zaidi.

The group recognized Mr. Zaidi “because what he did represents a victory for human rights across the world,” it said in a statement.

--Timothy Williams reported from Baghdad, and Sharon Otterman from New York. Reporting was contributed by Atheer Kakan, Suadad al-Salhy, Mudhafer al-Husaini, Alissa J. Rubin and Eric Owles from Baghdad, Iraqi employees of The New York Times from Mosul, Samarra and Najaf, and Robert F. Worth from Beirut, Lebanon.