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Originally published December 15, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 15, 2008 at 9:18 AM

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Bush dodges shoes thrown by journalist in Baghdad

President Bush on Sunday made a valedictory visit to Iraq, the country that will largely define his legacy, but the trip will more likely be remembered for the unscripted moment when an Iraqi journalist hurled his shoes at Bush's head and denounced him on live television as a "dog" who had delivered death and sorrow here from nearly six years of war.

The New York Times

BAGHDAD — President Bush on Sunday made a valedictory visit to Iraq, the country that will largely define his legacy, but the trip will more likely be remembered for the unscripted moment when an Iraqi journalist hurled his shoes at Bush's head and denounced him on live television as a "dog" who had delivered death and sorrow here from nearly six years of war.

The drama unfolded shortly after Bush appeared at a news conference in Baghdad with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to highlight the newly adopted security agreement between the United States and Iraq. That agreement includes a commitment to withdraw all American forces by the end of 2011.

The Iraqi journalist, Muntader al-Zaidi, 28, a correspondent for Al Baghdadia, an independent Iraqi station, stood up about 12 feet from Bush and shouted in Arabic: "This is a gift from the Iraqis; this is the farewell kiss, you dog!" He then threw a shoe at Bush, who ducked and narrowly avoided it.

As stunned security agents and guards, officials and journalists watched, al-Zaidi then threw his other shoe, shouting in Arabic, "This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq!" That shoe also narrowly missed Bush as al-Maliki stuck a hand in front of the president's face to help shield him.

Chaos immediately ensued as a scrum of al-Maliki's security agents jumped on the man, wrestled him to the floor and hustled him out of the ornate room where the news conference was taking place. They kicked him and beat him until "he was crying like a woman," said Mohammed Taher, a reporter for Afaq, a station owned by the Dawa Party, which is led by al-Maliki. Al-Zaidi was then detained on unspecified charges.

Other Iraqi journalists in the front row of the news conference publicly apologized to Bush, who was uninjured and tried to brush off the incident by making a joke. "All I can report is it is a size 10," he said, continuing to take a few questions.

He called the incident a sign of democracy in the country, saying, "That's what people do in a free society — draw attention to themselves," as the man's screaming could be heard outside.

But the moment clearly unnerved the aides of al-Maliki and some of the Americans in Bush's entourage, partly because it was televised and may have revealed a security lapse in the so-called Green Zone, the most heavily secured part of Baghdad. Dana Perino, the White House press secretary, was visibly distraught, and NBC News reported she had been struck in the face by a microphone in the chaos.

The shoe-throwing incident also punctuated Bush's visit — his fourth — in a deeply symbolic way, reflecting the conflicted views in Iraq of a man who had toppled Saddam Hussein, ordered the occupation of the country and brought it the kind of freedoms unthinkable under Saddam's rule but at enormous costs.

Hitting someone with a shoe is considered the supreme insult in Iraq. It means that the target is even lower than the shoe, which is always on the ground and dirty. Crowds of people hurled their shoes at the giant statue of Saddam that once stood in Baghdad's Firdos Square before helping U.S. Marines to pull it down April 9, 2003, the day the capital fell. More recently, a far bigger crowd comprised of Iraqis who had opposed the security agreement did the same with an effigy of Bush in the same square, flinging their shoes at it before burning it.

Al-Zaidi's motivations in carrying out a potentially career-ending act were unclear, but friends described him as a devoted journalist. "He was committed to his job and after training in Lebanon became chief of correspondents about a month ago," said Haider Nassar, who worked with him at Baghdadia.

"He had bad feelings about the coalition forces," said Nassar, referring to the U.S.-led foreign military forces in Iraq. Nassar also said al-Zaidi had asked to cover the news conference, since he was the chief correspondent. Another friend said al-Zaidi often ended his reports by saying "Reporting from occupied Baghdad, this is Muntader al-Zaidi."

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Like many Iraqi reporters at the news conference, Nassar said he did not think this was an effective way for al-Zaidi to make his points. "This is so silly; it's just the behavior of an individual. He destroyed his future," he said.

The television channel broadcast a request for al-Zaidi's release in the name of democracy and freedom of speech. "Any procedure against Muntader will remind us of the behavior of the dictatorship and their violent actions, random detentions and mass graves," the channel said.

Shortly before 10 p.m., Bush left the Green Zone by helicopter to Camp Victory, where he was greeted with cheers and whoops from hundreds of troops inside the enormous rotunda of the Al Faw palace. Speaking at a lectern beneath an enormous American flag, he praised this generation of soldiers and reflected on the sacrifice of those who had died.

He called last year's increased deployment of U.S. troops in Iraq, which is credited with helping reduce violence here, "one of the greatest successes in the history of the United States military."

Bush then flew to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan for a rally with more than 1,000 U.S. and foreign troops. "Afghanistan is a dramatically different country than it was eight years ago," he said. "We are making hopeful gains."

He then took a helicopter ride to Kabul to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

In many ways, the unannounced trip was a victory lap without a clear victory. Nearly 150,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq fighting a war that is intensely disliked across the globe. More than 4,209 members of the U.S. military have died in the conflict, which has cost U.S. taxpayers $576 billion since it began five years and nine months ago.

There are about 31,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan now, and commanders have called for up to 20,000 more. The need is especially great in southern Afghanistan, long a stronghold of the Taliban and the place where recent spikes in violence have proven the insurgency capable of reasserting itself.

As with previous visits — in November 2003, June 2006 and September 2007 — preparations for the visit were secretive. The White House schedule for Sunday had Bush attending the "Christmas in Washington" performance. Instead, he left the White House by car Saturday night, arriving at Andrews Air Force Base at 9 p.m. to board Air Force One.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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