Iraqi journalist says he threw shoes at Bush to restore pride

Friday, February 20, 2009
Supporters and relatives of Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zeidi who gained cult status for throwing his shoes at former U.S. President George W. Bush wave as he is taken away from a court in a Humvee in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Feb. 19, 2009. Al-Zeidi's attorneys say he has been charged with assaulting a foreign leader, which carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

BAGHDAD -- The Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at George W. Bush did not apologize as his trial began Thursday, and instead struck a defiant tone -- telling the judges he wanted to hit back at the humiliation Iraq had suffered at U.S. hands.

It was Muntadhar al-Zeidi's first public appearance since he was arrested in mid-December for hurling shoes at Bush during a joint news conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

"What made me do it was the humiliation Iraq has been subjected to due to the U.S. occupation and the murder of innocent people," al-Zeidi told the court. "I wanted to restore the pride of the Iraqis in any way possible, apart from using weapons."

He also said he had been tortured with beatings and electric shocks during his interrogation -- allegations the Iraqi government has denied. The trial was later adjourned until March 12.

Dozens of cheering and ululating supporters greeted al-Zeidi as he arrived at the courthouse in western Baghdad in an Iraqi army Humvee. As the journalist walked into the courtroom, his aunt handed him a scarf imprinted with a red, black and green Iraqi flag, which he kissed. He wrapped the scarf around his neck and wore it proudly during his 30-minute testimony to the three-judge panel.

Many people in the region -- angry over the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq -- have embraced al-Zeidi. They have staged large street rallies calling for his release, and one Iraqi man erected a sofa-sized sculpture of a shoe in his honor that the Iraqi government later ordered removed.

When al-Zeidi threw his shoes at Bush, he shouted in Arabic: "This is your farewell kiss, you dog! This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq."

The shoes did not hit Bush, who ducked, and al-Zeidi was quickly wrestled to the ground by guards and dragged away.

Al-Maliki was deeply embarrassed by the assault on an American president who had stood by him when some Arab leaders were quietly urging the U.S. to oust him.

Al-Zeidi told the court Thursday that he did not intend to harm Bush or embarrass al-Maliki, but he did not apologize for his actions.

He conceded he had recorded himself planning to insult Bush at a news conference in Amman, Jordan, two years ago but he ended up not going to the neighboring country.

"And, yes, I said that to the prime minister's guards after I was beaten and suffering from electric shocks," he added.

He denied, however, that the December action was premeditated, saying he decided to throw his shoes after becoming enraged as Bush spoke about his achievements at the news conference -- held a little over a month before the president handed the war off to his successor, Barack Obama, who has pledged to end it.

"I was seeing a whole country in calamity while Bush was giving a cold and spiritless smile," al-Zeidi testified. "He was saying goodbye after causing the death of many Iraqis and economic destruction."

Al-Zeidi's lawyers say he has been charged with assaulting a foreign leader, which carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison. They unsuccessfully tried to get the charge reduced, contending the act didn't merit such harsh punishment.

The defense argued Thursday that the current charge is not applicable because Bush was not in Baghdad on an official visit, having arrived unannounced and without an invitation.

"The visit was not formal because Bush is an occupier and he was received by the commander of the U.S. Army and it was an undeclared visit," lawyer Ghalib al-Rubaie said. "President Jalal Talabani and the prime minister did not receive him when he arrived."

Judge Abdul-Amir al-Rubaie recessed the trial until next month, saying the court needed time to ask the Iraqi Cabinet whether Bush's visit was "formal or informal." Visits to Iraq by foreign dignitaries are rarely announced in advance due to security reasons.

Al-Zeidi, who wore a beige suit and a black shirt, spoke confidently during his testimony and showed no signs of the injuries he allegedly suffered at the hands of security officers at the time of the incident.

The case's investigating judge has said the journalist was struck about the face and eyes, apparently by security agents who wrestled him to the ground.

Two Cabinet protocol employees denied this allegation Thursday, testifying that members of the audience beat al-Zeidi, but government security officers had not.

One of al-Zeidi's lawyers, Karim al-Shujeiri, said the court should have called independent witnesses, not government employees.

Supporters who rallied in front of the courthouse said al-Zeidi should be praised for confronting Bush, not punished.

"What Muntadhar has done is revenge for Iraqi widows and for the bloodshed caused by the occupation and policy of Bush," said al-Zeidi's aunt, Nawal Lazim.

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