By Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent
BEIRUT, Dec 15 (Reuters) - The hurling of shoes at U.S. President George W. Bush on his farewell visit to Iraq strikes many in the Middle East as a fittingly furious comment on what they see as his calamitous legacy in the region.
Arab and Iranian TV stations have gleefully replayed the clip, sometimes in slow motion, of an Iraqi reporter calling Bush a "dog" and throwing his shoes at him — the Middle East’s tastiest insults — at a Baghdad news conference on Sunday.
The affront was a twisted echo of the triumphal moment for Bush when joyous Iraqis used their footwear to beat a statue of Saddam Hussein toppled by U.S. invading troops in 2003.
"It indicates how much antagonism he’s been able to create in the whole region," former Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher told Reuters, adding that the incident was regrettable.
Bush had harmed America’s reputation and the friendship many had felt for it. "Despite past mistakes in its policies, there was always a redeeming factor. In this particular case, there doesn’t seem to have ever been a redeeming factor," Maher said.
Muntazer al-Zaidi, who works for independent al-Baghdadiya television, has shot to local stardom for his attack on Bush and his cry: "This is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, dog."
He has also won instant fame abroad — a poem on an Islamist website praises him as "a hero with a lion’s heart" — although the Iraqi government slated his "barbaric and ignominious act".
Zaidi’s crude public display of disdain for an incumbent U.S. president hit a chord with many in the Middle East.
"The Iraqi journalist is a true and free Baghdadi," said a Saudi private sector employee who gave his name as Abu Faisal. "He was brave and did us proud. Bush destroyed (Iraq) so surely he deserved to be beaten with a shoe".
Khalid al-Dakhil, a Saudi university lecturer in social politics, said the incident summed up Bush’s impact on the Middle East, which "will haunt this region for a long time".
Dakhil, who said Bush had committed war crimes in Iraq after launching a war based on "lies" that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction, nevertheless fretted about the shoe-throwing.
"While understandable, it wasn’t the most sophisticated and constructive way to express one’s anger at Bush, especially coming from an educated Arab journalist. It reinforces the stereotype ideas in the Western world about Arabs."
Some Palestinians, whose hopes of independent statehood have withered in the eight-year Bush era, relished the moment.
"A shoe company in Hebron claimed the attack on Bush and they will give the attacker shoes all his life," runs one joke being exchanged on mobile telephones in the Gaza Strip.
"LEGACY OF DISGRACE"
In Iran, under U.S. pressure over its nuclear programme, ordinary people had no good words for the outgoing president.
"He left a legacy of disgrace for America. His name will certainly go down in history and be remembered for all bad things for ever," said pensioner Assadollah Ghorbani, 67.
Parviz Alousi, 59, a former Iranian industry ministry employee, said the Bush had only created problems for the world, which "because of his ego" he had sought to dominate.
Some political analysts in Lebanon took an equally scathing view of Bush’s policy record in the region.
"To say disaster is an under-statement. The best thing he can do is exit the White House," said Hilal Khashan, political science professor at the American University of Beirut. "I can’t remember a lower point in U.S. prestige abroad."
Arabs have long fumed at American support for Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians, but Bush’s war in Iraq created a new source of anger and instability in the Middle East.
"It’s a sore, open and bleeding wound, just as the Palestine issue is," said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, an expert on Hezbollah.
The Iraqi shoe-thrower had found a far more telling protest than raising a banner or poster showing war victims, she argued.
"It’s a sign of empowerment. He was saying not only that your (Bush’s) legacy is one of disgrace, not only do we see you as lowly, but that we can overpower and defeat you."
Mohammed al-Masri, a researcher at Jordan University’s Centre for Strategic Studies, saw the vignette as iconic.
"Arabs will always remember the shoes hurled at Bush as symbolising their deep frustration with his failed policies."
The insult to Bush also embarrassed Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who was standing beside him at the time.
They were marking the recent passage of a security pact that calls for U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011 — a major challenge awaiting President-elect Barack Obama.
Many in the Middle East are pinning hopes on the next U.S. president, despite past disappointments.
"Any change appears welcome because we had reached the bottom," said Maher, Egypt’s former foreign minister. (Additional reporting by Souhail Karam in Riyadh, Hossein Jaseb in Tehran, Aziz El-Kaissouni in Cairo, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman and Inal Ersan in Dubai; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)