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Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Shoe-throwing journalist about to be released

The man who hurled his shoes at President George W. Bush here nearly a year ago in a brazen act that turned the little-known Iraqi journalist into a hero for many in the Arab world and crystallized the seething anger felt by many Iraqis for the consequences of the American invasion, was freed on Tuesday from a Baghdad jail.
Zaidi, who had originally been sentenced to three years in prison for assaulting a visiting foreign leader, spent nine months in jail and, according to his brother, would likely leave Iraq now, fearing for his life.
“He is free,” said his brother, Uday Zaidi, in a brief telephone conversation. The family is scheduled to hold a press conference in Baghdad later Tuesday to discuss the details of his imprisonment and his future plans.
Unlike the fanfare that greeted his arrest and trial, the Iraqi government sought to downplay his release, barring the family from meeting him at the gates of the prison where he was held and, instead, quietly escorting him to his family’s residence in the capital.
A journalist for the independent Iraqi television station, Al Baghdadia, Mr. Zaidi, 29, was attending a December press conference that Mr. Bush was holding on his final visit to the country his administration had invaded six years earlier.
As stunned members of the White House press corps and other Iraqi journalists looked on, Mr. Zaidi rose from his seat and shouted in Arabic: “This is a gift from the Iraqis; this is the farewell kiss, you dog!”
He then whipped one of his shoes straight at Mr. Bush’s head, narrowly missing him when the president quickly ducked.

Before anyone could react, Mr. Zaidi, only 12 feet from Mr. Bush, had his other shoe in hand and shouted once again: “This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq!”
Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, standing at the podium next to Mr. Bush, stuck a hand in front of the president’s face to help shield him, and, once again, Mr. Bush ducked and was not struck.
Mr. Zaidi was wrestled to the ground and rushed out of the room.
It was reported that he was repeatedly kicked by Iraqi security guards outside the room and even as his wailing was heard inside, Mr. Bush first joked that he could report that the shoe was a size ten. Then he played down the episode, saying it was a sign of democracy.
“That’s what people do in a free society, draw attention to themselves,” he said.
The incident, which was broadcast across the globe, immediately captured the imagination of many both inside and outside Iraq.
From Libya, where he was awarded a Medal of Freedom, to Syria, where banners of praise were unfurled on street corners and his photo was shown on state television all day, Mr. Zaidi was lionized.
There was even an offer from a wealthy Saudi Arabian citizen to buy one of the shoes for $10 million. It is unclear where the shoes actually are at the moment, but an Iraqi security official said he believed they are still being held by the government.
Despite the reaction in the wider Arab world, the incident proved fraught in Iraq itself.
The fact that Mr. Zaidi, who is a Sunni, might choose to leave Iraq is a testament to the lingering doubts about security and sectarian divides in the country.
For the government of Mr. Maliki, the episode was a deep embarrassment.
But given Mr. Zaidi’s cult hero status, it proved difficult to figure out the best way to handle the case.
For several months, government officials wrangled over the question of what charges Mr. Zaidi should face and whether Mr. Bush’s trip should even be considered a state visit since his press conference took place in the Green Zone, which was then still controlled by the American military.
In the end, he was charged with assault against a foreign head of state. His initial sentence of three years in prison was reduced to one year in April and he was released early because of good behavior, Iraqi officials said.
His detention before his trial, as well as the treatment he received by the members of Mr. Maliki’s security detail when he was arrested, were hotly debated in a tumultuous session of Parliament that led to threats of resignation by the body’s speaker.
And while Mr. Zaidi certainly captured the anger of many Sunni Arabs who feel that they have lost standing in the new Shiite-led government, even that emotion is complicated by the fact that for many Sunnis, American forces have increasingly been viewed as their protectors in some ways.
At his trial, Mr. Zaidi explained his motivations.
“In that moment, I saw nothing but Bush, and I felt the blood of the innocents was flowing under his feet while he was smiling that smile,” Mr. Zaidi said in court, wearing an Iraqi flag scarf that a relative had given him. “I felt that this person was the reason for the killing of my people and I am a part of these people, so I tried to pay him back even a small or a simple part of what he committed.”

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