Posted on Sun, Dec. 14, 2008
last updated: December 17, 2008 06:33:09 PM
BAGHDAD — George W. Bush made his last visit to Iraq as president on Sunday. But instead of highlighting progress from the "surge," it became a reminder that many Iraqis see him not as a liberator who freed them from Saddam Hussein but as an occupier who pushed their country into chaos.
As Bush finished remarks that hailed the security progress that led to a U.S.-Iraq agreement that sets a three-year timetable for an American withdrawal, an Iraqi television journalist leapt from his seat, pulled off his shoes and threw them at the president. Striking someone with a shoe is a grave insult in Islam.
"This is a goodbye kiss, you dog," the journalist, Muntathar al Zaidi, 29, shouted.
Bush ducked the first shoe. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, standing to Bush's left, tried to swat down the second. Neither hit the president. Another Iraqi journalist yanked Zaidi to the ground before bodyguards collapsed on Zaidi and held him there while he yelled "Killer of Iraqis, killer of children." From the bottom of the pile, he moaned loudly and said "my hand, my hand."
Video of the incident showed that no Secret Service agents assigned to protect the president were near Bush when Zaidi threw the shoes. The first agent appears to move to the president's side after the second shoe was thrown. Bush waved him off. The incident was largely over before several other bodyguards can be seen entering the room from behind the president.
Zaidi was hauled to a separate room, where his cries remained audible for a few moments.
It wasn't clear whether Zaidi was hurt. His employer, Cairo-based Baghdadiyah Television, released a statement late Sunday demanding Zaidi's release from Iraqi custody.
"Any action taken against Muntathar will remind us of the actions and behaviors taken by the reign of the dictator and the violence, the random arrests, the mass graves and confiscations of freedom from the people," the board of Baghdadiyah said.
Friends said Zaidi covered the U.S. bombing of Baghdad's Sadr City area earlier this year and had been "emotionally influenced" by the destruction he'd seen. They also said he'd been kidnapped in 2007 and held for three days by Shiite Muslim gunmen.
Bush said the shoe-throwing incident didn't faze him. He tried to laugh about it, saying, "It didn't bother me, and if you want the facts it was a size 10 shoe he threw at me."
He continued with the press conference, taking a question from an Iraqi reporter and another from an American.
"That's what happens in free societies when people try to draw attention to themselves," he said.
Two other Iraqi journalists were briefly detained after the press conference. An Iraqi security guard hauled them away because one of them called Zaidi's actions "courageous." They were released. One of them said American officials helped free them.
The incident was a sharp contrast to Bush's message at the press conference, in which the president touted his collaboration with Maliki to "do something different, not to allow Iraq to fall into civil war" in 2006 and 2007, when sectarian violence peaked.
That partnership resulted in the "surge" of U.S. forces and a parallel increase in the number of Iraqi security forces. It benefited from radical cleric Muqtada al Sadr's decision to call a ceasefire in his Shiite militia, and a movement among Sunni tribes to work with Americans against al Qaida in Iraq cells.
Those security gains have resulted in a steep drop in violence throughout Iraq - a decline of more than 80 percent in Baghdad - which Bush said is contributing to political stability.
"This is the future we've been fighting for, a strong, democratic Iraq that will be a force for freedom," he said.
"The American people have sacrificed a great deal to reach this moment," he continued. "Thousands of our finest citizens have given their lives to make our country safer and bring us to this new day."
Despite his descriptions of progress, Bush was cautious in discussing Iraq's future in his fourth visit to the country. He said the drop in violence would give President-elect Barack Obama an opportunity to cement the gains with a stable Iraq.
"Is it the end? Absolutely not. There's more work to be done," he said. Maliki, who spoke only briefly at the start of the press conference, praised Bush's record in Iraq.
"You have stood by Iraq and the Iraqi people for a very long starting with getting rid of the dictatorship to fighting terrorism," he said.
Maliki and Bush built a close working relationship during the past few years, which included regular conferences between the two leaders.
Part of that relationship featured Maliki sculpting a reputation as someone who was willing to stand up to the U.S., and Bush.
Maliki won concessions when negotiating the security agreement that the U.S. was reluctant to yield ground on, such as setting a timetable for the withdrawal of American forces and gaining legal jurisdiction over military contractors who commit crimes in Iraq.
That bargaining enabled Maliki to promote the agreement as a win for Iraq despite fears in Iraq's parliament that it would open the country to an extended U.S. occupation. Some lawmakers refused to sign any deal with the U.S., arguing that it would infringe Iraqi sovereignty.
Sadr's party was resolute in its opposition to the deal. Thousands of his followers rallied in a central Baghdad square three weeks ago, where they beat an effigy of Bush with their shoes before they burned it. They're planning to rally Monday to protest Bush's visit.