BAGHDAD — In the two months since he chucked a pair of shoes across a crowded Baghdad room and narrowly missed former President George W. Bush, Iraqi journalist Muntathar al Zaidi has emerged as a folk hero, poetry muse and minor irritant.
Since that throw, Zaidi has received job offers, a residency invitation from U.S. foe Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and even a wedding proposal on behalf of an Egyptian woman. A local artist built a monument in his honor, Iraqis have rallied in his defense and gadflies have carried out copycat protests worldwide.
On Thursday, the 30-year-old is scheduled to go to trial in the Central Criminal Court on charges of assaulting a foreign head of state. Conviction could lead to as many as 15 years in prison.
Zaidi's attorney, Dhiyaa al Saadi, says his client was beaten while in custody, evidenced by the cuts and bruises on his body and by a missing tooth. In court, Saadi plans to argue that the journalist meant only to humiliate Bush — not to attack him — and that the case should be dropped. An earlier effort to reduce the charges was lost on an appeal.
"He didn't mean to kill Bush," said Saadi, the head of the Iraqi Bar Association. "The shoe was not a criminal tool to kill someone."
In the Arab world, showing the bottom of one's shoe is an insult; throwing shoes is an expression of grave disdain.
The trial is certain to test the strength and independence of Iraq's public institutions as the U.S.-led occupation cedes authority to Iraqis and American troops plan to withdraw by the end of 2011 after newfound security gains.
The shoe-throwing incident Dec. 14 is legendary, the beneficiary of more than a million views and reviews on YouTube.
Winding down his unpopular presidency on a farewell visit, Bush spoke at a news conference in the Green Zone, central Baghdad's heavily guarded compound. Zaidi attended as a reporter with the al Baghdadiya satellite-television channel, based in Cairo, Egypt.
When Zaidi tossed the first shoe, Bush ducked, and then Zaidi hurled the second. Neither hit Bush nor Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who stood at the side.
Another Iraqi journalist wrestled Zaidi to the floor. Bodyguards piled on top of Zaidi. Zaidi called Bush a "dog."
Bush shrugged and resumed the news conference.
"It's a way to draw attention," he said at the time. "It's like driving down the street and have people not gesturing with all five fingers."
He joked that the shoe was a size 10.
The event, televised around the world, unleashed an outpouring of reaction.
Several thousand Iraqis rallied for Zaidi's release. Some wanted him to run for office. Even Sunni Muslim Arabs found the Shiite Muslim journalist worthy of praise. Outside Iraq, a thousand attorneys from Morocco to Jordan volunteered to help Zaidi, his lawyer said.
"He responded to the insults and attacks against Iraqis," said Sumeya al Adhemi, 38, an Iraqi government employee. "I can say that he was a real hero."
Zaidi has built up a border-transcending fan club.
Thousands of "fans" have joined multiple Zaidi Facebook pages, which feature photos of his face, Bush's duck and the thrower frozen in action, arm extended. Even the shoes have fans: A Facebook page for "Al Zaidi shoes" has 46 members.
The shoes themselves were brown, heavy-soled "Model 271s," according to a Turkish manufacturer. A Saudi man reportedly offered $10 million for them, but it wasn't possible to buy them. Iraqi security agents destroyed the shoes after testing them for contraband.
"They were cleared of material used for chemicals and explosives," said Saadi, who's leading a team of 25 attorneys on the case. "They should've been kept (as evidence) in this case."
On eBay, Zaidi-related items are on the auction block. A "This is a farewell kiss, dog" T-shirt is for sale at $10. A domain name, www.size10attack.cn, is available for a whopping $19,990.
Of course, the YouTube clips abound. So do spoofs.
In one, two wisecracking guys acting as reporters are attending a Bush news conference; one carries a recorder, the other scribbles on a notepad.
"You know what you should do?" one says. "Throw your shoe at him."
After some back-and-forth chuckling, his colleague says, "I'm going to do it, dude." The video cuts to a clip of Zaidi chucking his shoes.
Shoe tossing has become the protest du jour.
"Muntathar al Zaidi changed the use of the shoe; it is now a way to express oneself," Saadi said in an interview Monday. "Shoes have since become a symbol to reject the occupier."
On Bush's last full day in office, about 100 activists lobbed sandals, combat boots and other footwear over the White House fence and onto the front lawn. In New York, an irate firefighter threw a shoe at a fire captain to protest the closing of an island firehouse.
In the Arab world, poems honoring Zaidi have circulated via cell phone text messages and on the Internet. The authors use a pun on Zaidi's first name, which means "the awaited" in Arabic.
"You are humiliated by the son of an Iraqi woman," reads the final line of one poem, addressed to Bush.
To be sure, not everybody approves of Zaidi's actions. Maliki's office called the incident "barbaric" and an embarrassment for Iraq.
In the Green Zone, not far from where the Bush news conference took place, an Iraqi cabdriver shook his head when he was asked recently about Zaidi.
"I think he's a loser," said Saad al Shamari, who's 22. "He should've respected the prime minister. If he wanted to embarrass Bush, he should've asked a tough question."
(Daniel is a staff writer for The Miami Herald. McClatchy special correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed to this report.)
RE FROM MCCLATCHY:
McClatchy Newspapers 2009