x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Iraq faces pressure to free journalist

Thousands of Iraqis take to the streets to demand the release of a reporter who threw his shoes at President George W Bush.

A man beats with a shoe a poster of George W Bush during a protest in Najaf yesterday.
A man beats with a shoe a poster of George W Bush during a protest in Najaf yesterday.

BAGHDAD // Iraq faced mounting calls yesterday to release the journalist who hurled his shoes at George W Bush, an action branded shameful by the government but hailed by many in the Arab world as an ideal parting gift to the unpopular US president. Colleagues of Muntazer al Zaidi, who works for the independent Iraqi television station Al Baghdadia, said he "detested America" and had been planning such an attack for months against the man who ordered the invasion of his country. "Throwing the shoes at Bush was the best goodbye kiss ever? it expresses how Iraqis and other Arabs hate Bush," wrote Musa Barhoumeh, the editor of Jordan's independent Al Ghad newspaper.

Hundreds of Iraqis joined anti-US demonstrations to protest at Mr Bush's farewell visit on Sunday to Iraq, which was plunged into a deadly insurgency and near civil war in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion. The Iraqi government branded al Zaidi's actions as "shameful" and demanded an apology from his Cairo-based employer, which in turn was calling for his immediate release from custody. Al Zaidi jumped up as Mr Bush was holding a press conference with Nouri al Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, on Sunday and shouted "It is the farewell kiss, you dog" and threw two shoes at the US leader. The shoes missed after Mr Bush ducked and al Zaidi was immediately wrestled to the ground and arrested. It is not known where al Zaidi is currently being held.

Al Baghdadia issued a statement demanding al Zaidi's immediate release "in line with the democracy and freedom of expression that the American authorities promised the Iraqi people". "Any measures against Muntazer will be considered the acts of a dictatorial regime," it added. But the government called for the channel to apologise, saying: "This action harms the reputation of Iraqi journalists and journalism in general."

Khalil al Dulaimi, Saddam Hussein's former lawyer, said he was forming a team to defend al Zaidi and that around 200 lawyers, including Americans, had offered their services for free. "It was the least thing for an Iraqi to do to Bush, the tyrant criminal who has killed two million people in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Mr al Dulaimi. "Our defence of al Zaidi will be based on the fact that the United States is occupying Iraq, and resistance is legitimate by all means, including shoes."

Al Zaidi's colleagues in the Baghdad office of Al Baghdadia said he had long been planning to throw shoes at Bush if ever he got the chance. "Muntazer detested America. He detested the US soldiers, he detested Bush," said one on condition of anonymity. Soles of shoes are considered the ultimate insult in Arab culture. After Saddam's statue was toppled in Baghdad in April 2003, many onlookers pelted it with their shoes. Yesterday, during a demonstration in Sadr City, the bastion of the radical anti-US cleric Muqtada al Sadr, protesters threw shoes at passing US military vehicles, while in the holy Shiite city of Najaf, the crowds chanted "Down with America".

"All US soldiers who have used their shoes to humiliate Iraqis should be brought to justice, along with their US superiors, including Bush," said Ali Qeisi, the head of a Jordan-based Iraqi rights group. "The flying shoe speaks more for Arab public opinion than all the despots/puppets that Bush meets with during his travels in the Middle East," said Asad Abu Khalil, a popular Lebanese-American blog writer at angryarab.blogspot.com. An Iraqi lawyer said al Zaidi risked a minimum of two years in prison if he is prosecuted for insulting a visiting head of state, but could face a 15-year term if he is charged with attempted murder. In Cairo, Muzhir al Khafaji, the programming director for the television channel, described al Zaidi as a "proud Arab and an open-minded man", saying he had worked at Al Baghdadia for three years. "We fear for his safety," he said, adding that al Zaidi had been arrested twice before by the Americans and that there were fears that more of the station's 200 correspondents in Iraq would be arrested. * AFP