'Shoe-thrower of Baghdad' brings Iraqis on to the streets

As Muntazer al-Zaidi remains in detention, his countrymen demonstrate their support for his anti-Bush protest

Thousands of Iraqis poured into the streets of Baghdad yesterday in support of Muntazer al-Zaidi, who was catapulted from obscurity to worldwide celebrity after hurling his shoes at the US President, George Bush. As the Iraqi journalist remained in detention for what authorities called "a barbaric and ignominious act", a crowd in Baghdad pelted US troops with their shoes in one of many street protests called in support of the reporter's action.

"Thanks be to God, Muntazer's act fills Iraqi hearts with pride," the journalist's brother, Udai al-Zaidi, said. "I'm sure many Iraqis want to do what Muntazer did."

Details emerged yesterday of how the 29-year-old Shia reporter, who has been working for al-Baghdadiyah television for three years, had been hit by all sides in the Iraq war. "He hates the American material occupation as much as he hates the Iranian moral occupation," another brother, Dhirgham, said.

Last year, Mr Zaidi was kidnapped by militants in a Sunni area in west Baghdad and held for three days during which he was badly beaten before being released. This January he was arrested in an American raid. Troops searched his apartment, he was held overnight and then let go with an apology. Friends said the journalist had also covered the US bombing of Sadr City this year and had been affected by the destruction he had seen.

The throwing of the shoes at Mr Bush may turn out to have marked a crucial turning point in the five-and-a-half-year-old American occupation of Iraq, provoking an outpouring of nationalist sentiment in opposition to the US presence, with support for Mr Zaidi seeming to cross sectarian boundaries. Demonstrations backing the journalist were held in the Shia holy city of Najaf, but also in the Sunni city of Tikrit demanding his release.

Mr Zaidi had thrown his shoes at the American Commander-in-Chief as he was giving a press conference with the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki. His words, "this is a goodbye kiss, you dog," achieved instant fame across the Muslim world. Mr Bush ducked the first shoe and Mr Maliki swatted at the second as the shoe-thrower yelled: "This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq." Mr Zaidi was then dragged to the ground by another Iraqi journalist and disappeared under a pile of Iraqi security men. He appears to have been injured in the melee, because he added "my hand, my hand".

His television station, which kept an image of Mr Zaidi on screen for much of the day, issued a statement demanding his release "in line with the democracy and freedom of expression that the American authorities promised the Iraqi people ... any measures taken against Muntazer will be considered the acts of a dictatorial regime."

The journalist was still in detention last night, with officials saying his size 10 black loafers had been confiscated. Technically he could face several years in jail for insulting a visiting head of state. If there are legal proceedings, Saddam Hussein's former lawyer has offered to defend him. However, it will be difficult for the Iraqi government to act against a patriotic hero.

Most Iraqis hold the US responsible for much of the violence of recent years and want the occupation brought to an orderly end. The government is facing provincial elections at the end of January and parliamentary elections later in the year. Mr Maliki secured a Status of Forces Agreement from the US which was approved by parliament on 27 November that will see all American troops withdrawn from cities, towns and villages by the end of June next year and from all of Iraq in three years.

The US commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, has suggested that US forces might still support Iraqi troops in urban areas, but the popular enthusiasm for Mr Zaidi's action shows that it will be difficult to dilute the agreement on withdrawing US troops without provoking a patriotic reaction among a significant number of Iraqis.

Sole protester: What the world thinks

* "The shoes should be exhibited in a museum as they resemble a rocket that talks on behalf of all Iraqis." - Zahraa, posting on website of Arabian Business magazine

* "The flying shoe speaks more for Arab public opinion than all the despots/puppets Bush meets during his travels in the Middle East." - Asad Abu Khalil, professor at Stanislaus University in California

"Our defence will be based on the fact that the US is occupying Iraq, and resistance is legitimate by all means, including shoes." - Saddam Hussein's former lawyer, Khalil al-Dulaimi, explaining that he was forming a team to defend Mr Zaidi

* "Please listen again. This is the sound of the shoe hitting the wall and missing President Bush." - Radio announcer in Tehran

* "Throwing shoes at Bush was the best goodbye kiss ever. It expresses how Iraqis ... hate Bush." - Musa Barhoumeh, editor of Jordan's independent Al-Gahd newspaper

* "He couldn't have gotten away with something as silly as that without democracy." - Greg, posting on the LA Times website

* "[Our group took] the decision to give Muntazer al-Zaidi the courage award because what he did is a victory for human rights across the world." - Aicha Gaddafi, daughter of the Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and head of the charity Waatassimou

* "I don't like Bush, but I don't agree with this action, it's not civilised. Journalists should use pen and paper to make their point, not their shoes." - Hamza Mahdi, a Baghdad shopkeeper

Bush's boot camp

*The hundreds of thousands of hits obtained by YouTube video footage of Muntazer al-Zaidi's attack on George Bush show that the incident has become a viral sensation on the internet, and has spawned a video game. Bush's Boot Camp puts you in the role of security guards tasked with protecting the President and preventing him being hit by flying shoes.

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