15 December 2008. A World to Win News Service. U.S. President George W. Bush made a surprise visit to Baghdad to say farewell to the country his government raped. The highlight, a joint press conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, was touted as proof of the improved situation for the occupation.
Just as Bush concluded his remarks, a young Iraqi journalist in the audience stood up and hurled a shoe at the U.S. president, shouting, "This is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog!" Then he threw the other shoe, adding, "This is from the widows, the orphans and all those who were killed in Iraq!" Bush ducked and the shoes hit the U.S. and Iraqi flags behind his head.
Hitting someone with the sole of your shoe is an extreme insult in the Arab world. All Iraqis remember the way people pounded Saddam Hussein's statue and portraits with their shoes when he went down.
The journalist, Muntadhar al-Zaidi, was present as an accredited correspondent for a satellite television station that broadcasts from Cairo, and had passed a U.S. Secret Service background check. His family was known to have suffered arrests under the regime of Saddam Hussein. He was said to have been deeply shaken by the American outrages at Abu-Ghraib, and then by the dead children he saw as a reporter on the scene during the U.S. bombing of the Sadr City slums last March. His employer described him as a "proud Arab and an open-minded man."
Bush made light of the incident. "This is what happens in a free society," he said. People in Iraq were not so convinced about the "freedom" the U.S. has brought Iraqis. U.S. Secret Service agents and Iraqi security guards could be seen beating Zaidi in the press conference room and he could be heard yelling “My hand, my hand.” Apparently the beating continued out of sight in the next room. His brother told BBC that he had suffered a broken hand, broken ribs, an eye injury and internal bleeding.
The 28-year-old journalist wasn't speaking just for himself. Two other reporters present were also arrested and beaten after his act, reportedly for remarking that it was courageous.
The next day thousands of people marched in the capital's Sadr City, Najaf and Basra, brandishing shoes and demanding his release. Since then some Iraqis have taken to throwing shoes at passing American patrols. Support for him is said to be overwhelming among Iraqis, crossing religious and ethnic lines among all those opposed to the occupation.
He has been taken as a role model by other journalists across the Middle East. Many are wondering, half seriously, if from now on press conferences with American officials will be "socks only". Among the hundreds of lawyers who have volunteered to defend Zaidi, some are reportedly Americans. Many comments on the Al Jazeera Web site posted from the U.S., Canada and Europe said Zaidi spoke for them and “simple folk across the planet.” Tens of thousands of people have joined Facebook groups set up on the Web in his support.
Zaidi’s brother said he was outraged by the U.S.-Iraqi Status of Forces treaty (see AWTWNS 27 October) whose signing Bush came to Baghdad to celebrate. Part of what’s fuelling a new swell of popular anger in Iraq is that Bush may be saying goodbye, but the U.S. occupation does not seem about to end. In the days before the press conference, U.S. commanding general Ray Odierno, on whose judgment incoming president Barack Obama says he will rely, announced that although the treaty promises that American troops will withdraw from Iraqi cities and towns after June 2009, he intends to keep "thousands" in the capital and other urban centres by re-labelling them "enablers" rather than combat forces. He suggested that the Iraqi government might later change the treaty and allow the U.S. to remain for years to come after the 2011 deadline it calls for. Speaking in favour of that idea, a spokesman for the Maliki government guessed that might mean another decade of occupation.