BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at U.S. President George W. Bush has become the talk of Iraq, hailed by marchers as a national hero but blasted by the government as a barbarian.
The little-known Shi‘ite reporter, said to have harbored anger against Bush for the thousands of Iraqis who died after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, had previously made headlines only once, when he was briefly kidnapped by gunmen in 2007.
TV reporter Muntazer al-Zaidi remained in detention on Monday, accused by the Iraqi government of a “barbaric act.” He would be sent for trial on charges of insulting the Iraqi state, said the prime minister’s media adviser, Yasin Majeed.
His employer, independent al-Baghdadiya television, demanded his release and demonstrators rallied for him in Baghdad’s Sadr City, in the southern Shi‘ite stronghold of Basra and in the holy city of Najaf, where some threw shoes at a U.S. convoy.
“Thanks be to God, Muntazer’s act fills Iraqi hearts with pride,” his brother, Udai al-Zaidi, told Reuters Television.
“I‘m sure many Iraqis want to do what Muntazer did. Muntazer used to say all the orphans whose fathers were killed are because of Bush.”
Zaidi shouted “this is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, dog,” at Bush in a news conference he held with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki during a farewell visit to Baghdad on Sunday.
The journalist then flung one shoe at Bush, forcing him to duck, followed by another, which sailed over Bush’s head and slammed into the wall behind him. Throwing shoes at someone is the worst possible insult in the Arab world.
Zaidi was dragged struggling and screaming from the room by security guards and could be heard shouting outside while the news conference continued after momentary mayhem.
The government said Zaidi had carried out “a barbaric and ignominious act” that was not fitting of the media’s role and demanded an apology from his television station.
Al-Baghdadiya television played endless patriotic music, with Zaidi’s face plastered across the screen.
A newscaster solemnly read out a statement calling for his release, “in accordance with the democratic era and the freedom of expression that Iraqis were promised by U.S. authorities.”
It said that any harsh measures taken against the reporter would be reminders of the “dictatorial era.”
The Iraqi Journalists’ Syndicate said Zaidi’s “far from professional” and irresponsible conduct had placed it in an “embarrassing and critical” situation. Nevertheless, it called on Maliki to release him for humanitarian reasons.
“It was the throw of the century. I believe Bush deserves what happened to him because he has not kept his promises to Iraqis,” said Baghdad resident Abu Hussein, 48.
Parliamentary reaction was mixed, with some saying Zaidi chose the wrong venue for his protest. Others cheered.
“Al-Zaidi’s shoe is the most famous shoe in the whole world,” said Fawzi Akram, a Turkman lawmaker loyal to anti-American Shi‘ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
A Libyan charity group chaired by leader Muammar Gaddafi’s daughter, Aicha Gaddafi, gave Zaidi an award for bravery.
Zaidi, now in his late 20s, spent more than two days blindfolded, after armed men kidnapped him in November 2007. He said at the time that the kidnappers had beaten him until he lost consciousness, and used his necktie to blindfold him.
He never learned the identity of the kidnappers, who questioned him about his work but did not demand a ransom.
Colleagues say Zaidi resented Bush, blaming him for the bloodshed that ravaged Iraq. It did not appear that he had lost any close family members during the sectarian killings and insurgency, which in recent months have finally begun to wane.
Additional reporting by Haidar Kadhim and Wissam Mohammed; Writing by Michael Christie; Editing by Dominic Evans