'Sock and awe' attack has Bush on his uppers

For the millions around the world who can't wait to see the back of George W Bush, Muntader al-Zaidi has become a hero. He is the Iraqi journalist who hurled his shoes at the US President during his final press conference in Baghdad, shouting, "This is a farewell kiss, you dog! This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq."

YouTube videos of the incident have been viewed at least five million times, and a hastily launched internet game called "Sock and Awe", in which players try to knock out the President by throwing virtual shoes at him, was so popular it crashed the website of its creators. A Saudi businessman was reported to have offered $10m for one of the shoes. Mr Zaidi has been proposed as the next president of Iraq, awarded a prize in Libya and offered sanctuary by Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez, never slow to come forward when there's Bush-hating to be done. Iraqis bearing shoes on poles filled the streets in support of the TV journalist, who was taken into custody.

Anyone who saw Iraqis taking off their footwear to beat Saddam Hussein's effigy will know that the shoe-thrower intended to deliver a mortal insult. Calling someone a "dog" in Muslim societies, where dogs are considered unclean, is equally offensive. Mr Bush showed admirable reflexes in ducking the first shoe – the second was off-target – and sought to make light of the affair, saying: "So what if the guy threw a shoe at me?" Later he joked that "it was a size 10" and, in a play on his warm words about an early encounter with Vladimir Putin, said he had "seen his sole". But just as his effusiveness about the chilly Russian President came to seem naive, his flippancy about the shoe attack might look misplaced if Mr Zaidi is mistreated. The government of Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, who was next to Mr Bush at the press conference, was far from amused. An investigating judge who saw the journalist said he bore signs of having been beaten, and his family claimed that he had been coerced into making an apology to the President.

Mr Zaidi could be tried for insulting and attempting to assault a foreign leader. So should the White House seek clemency for him? Mr Bush's press secretary, Dana Perino, said he had "no hard feelings" about the incident. But she also said that "the President believes that Iraq is a sovereign country, a democratic country, and they will have a process that they follow on this". Questioned further, she said: "I don't know what their constitution says about pardons."

The answer is that President Jalal Talabani could pardon the hapless journalist at the Prime Minister's request – but there would have to be a conviction first.

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