Iraq: the politics of shoe-throwing

Reporter Muntadhar al-Zeidi notoriously hurled his shoes at Bush—a vile insult in the Muslim world—during a press conference in Baghdad, yelling “this is a farewell kiss, you dog. This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq.” He was arrested right after the toss. (Blast, Dec. 16) Predictably, like many journalists, he had been detained by US forces. But to the discomfiture of just about all sides in Iraq, he was also disgusted by the “insurgents” and Iranian influence in his country. Thus reports AP Dec. 16:

BAGHDAD – The Iraqi TV reporter who hurled his shoes at George W. Bush was kidnapped once by militants and, separately, detained briefly by the U.S. military. Over time, Muntadhar al-Zeidi, a 28-year-old unmarried Shiite, came to hate both the U.S. military occupation and Iran’s interference in Iraq, his family told The Associated Press on Monday.

Al-Zeidi’s act of defiance Sunday transformed an obscure reporter from a minor TV station into a national hero to many Iraqis fed up with the nearly six-year U.S. presence here, but also fearful that their country will fall under Iran’s influence once the Americans leave.

Several thousand people demonstrated in Baghdad and other cities to demand al-Zeidi’s release. The attack was the talk of the town in coffee shops, business offices and even schools — and a subject across much of the Arab world. A charity run by the daughter of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi bestowed a medal of courage on al-Zeidi, calling on the Iraqi government to free him.

Al-Zeidi was held Monday in Iraqi custody for investigation and could face charges of insulting a foreign leader and the Iraqi prime minister, who was standing next to Bush. Conviction carries a sentence of up to two years in prison or a small fine — although it’s unlikely he would face the maximum penalty given his newfound cult status in the Arab world.

Bush was not hit or injured in the attack, and Iraqi security guards wrestled al-Zeidi to the ground immediately after he tossed his shoes. White House press secretary Dana Perino suffered an eye injury when she was hit in the face with a microphone during the melee.

But Bush took a drubbing later as Arab satellite TV networks repeatedly broadcast images of him ducking the shoes at the Baghdad press conference…

Bush joked about the incident later telling reporters: “I’m pretty good at ducking as some of you know,” a reference to avoiding questions. He downplayed the significance of the display saying he didn’t think “you can take one guy throwing shoes and say this represents a broad movement in Iraq. You can try to do that if you want but I don’t think that would be accurate.”

A day after the incident, al-Zeidi’s three brothers and one sister gathered in al-Zeidi’s simple, one-bedroom apartment in west Baghdad. The home was decorated with a poster of Latin American revolutionary leader Che Guevara, who is widely lionized in the Middle East.

Family members expressed bewilderment over al-Zeidi’s action and concern about his treatment in Iraqi custody. But they also expressed pride over his defiance of an American president who many Iraqis believe has destroyed their country.

“I swear to Allah, he is a hero,” said his sister, who goes by the nickname Umm Firas (mother of Firas, her oldest son), as she watched a replay of her brother’s attack on an Arabic satellite station. “May Allah protect him.”

The family insisted that al-Zeidi’s action was spontaneous — perhaps motivated by the political turmoil that their brother had reported on, plus his personal brushes with violence and the threat of death that millions of Iraqis face daily.

Al-Zeidi joined Al-Baghdadia television in September 2005 after graduating from Baghdad University with a degree in communications. Two years later, he was seized by gunmen while on an assignment in a Sunni district of north Baghdad.

He was freed unharmed three days later after Iraqi television stations broadcast appeals for his release. At the time, al-Zeidi told reporters he did not know who kidnapped him or why, but his family blamed al-Qaida and said no ransom was paid.

In January he was taken again, this time arrested by American soldiers who searched his apartment building, his brother, Dhirgham, said. He was released the next day with an apology, the brother said.

Those experiences helped mold a deep resentment of both the U.S. military’s presence here and Iran’s pervasive influence over Iraq’s cleric-dominated Shiite community, according to his family.

He hates the American physical occupation as much as he hates the Iranian moral occupation,” Dhirgham said, alluding to the influence of pro-Iranian Shiite clerics in political and social life. “As for Iran, he considers the regime to be the other side of the American coin.

That’s a view widely held among Iraqis — including many Shiites — who believe the Americans and the Iranians have been fighting a proxy war in their country through Tehran’s alleged links to Shiite extremists.

Al-Zeidi may have also been motivated by what a colleague described as a boastful, showoff personality.

“He tried to raise topics to show that nobody is as smart as he is,” said Zanko Ahmed, a Kurdish journalist who attended a journalism training course with al-Zeidi in Lebanon.

Ahmed recalled that al-Zeidi spoke glowingly of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose followers organized protests Monday to demand his release.

“Regrettably, he didn’t learn anything from the course in Lebanon, where we were taught ethics of journalism and how to be detached and neutral,” Ahmed said.

Heh heh. Apparently not. Although we question that claim of enthusiasm for Sadr, which would seem to be at odds with the Che poster and what his family says about his views. Meanwhile, the blog Roads to Iraq informs us that Iraq’s TV al-Sharqiya reported that Zeidi has been transferred to the US-run Camp Cropper prison, at Baghdad’s airport. The report indicates he has broken ribs and signs of torture, and cannot move his right arm. The International Federation of Journalists has issued a call for his release:

“This journalist was expressing his own deeply-felt views and we cannot condone his actions,” said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary, “but after years of intimidation, mistreatment and unsolved killings at the hands of US soldiers, it is no surprise that there is anger and resentment among journalists.”

It is no coincidence says the IFJ that the protest comes only days after the United States refused to release a detained journalist, despite an Iraqi court order that he should be set free. “When the US appears to defy the rule of law in Iraq, it is no surprise that journalists will look to other ways to make their protest over injustice,” said White.

The IFJ is warning that the journalist may be under threat while in detention given the record of mistreatment of journalists in custody by US forces. It is supporting its affiliate the Iraqi Union of Journalists (IUJ) which has called for Muntadar al-Zeidi to be released and for his safety to be guaranteed. The IFJ is also calling on the government to make good on its commitment to conduct a full investigation into the deaths of Iraqi journalists since the start of the US occupation. The IUJ counts 284 journalists killed in Iraq since April 2003.

See our last posts on Iraq and attacks on the media.

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