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Throw a shoe, become a legend

Susman is a Times staff writer.

In the few seconds it took Iraqi journalist Muntather Zaidi to wing a pair of shoes at President Bush, the Middle East got its own version of Joe the Plumber.

Just as Joe Wurzelbacher’s gripes to Barack Obama during the U.S. presidential election catapulted him to fame, Zaidi’s burst of rage toward Bush during a Baghdad news conference Sunday has made him a household name across the Middle East.

To many, Zaidi is a hero for engaging in the ultimate Arab world insult to Bush -- hurling his shoes at the American leader, who ducked to avoid being slammed in the head. To others, Zaidi is an embarrassment for a society that prides itself on being hospitable to guests, even those who are not much liked. However his act is viewed, there’s no question that Zaidi, like Wurzelbacher, is no longer just another Joe.

That is likely to create headaches for Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s government as it decides what to do with the 29-year-old satellite TV correspondent, who remained in custody Monday night. To throw the book at the shoe tosser would fuel anger toward Maliki and elevate Zaidi to martyrdom among many in Iraq and the Middle East; to drop the case would amount to ignoring a security and social breach committed on international TV -- and shown seemingly nonstop since -- not only against Bush but also his host, Maliki.

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“For anyone to behave that way . . . is just too humiliating and unbelievable,” said Tariq Harb, a leading Iraqi lawyer. He said there were laws against assaulting a foreign leader who is a guest in Iraq that would apply in Zaidi’s case.

By Monday, the burgeoning Arab online community was bursting with positive commentary and even poems. An online fan club on Facebook, “Brave Iraqi Journalist Throws Shoes at Bush,’ drew hundeds of members. Other clubs that sprang up allowed members to throw virtual shoes at Bush.

“The famous shoes should be exhibited in a museum, as they resembled a rocket that talks on behalf of all Iraqis,” a user named Zahraa wrote on another website.

Baghdadiya, the Cairo-based TV channel that employs Zaidi, demanded his release from custody and urged other media outlets to do the same. Former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s lawyer, Khalil Dulaimi, called Zaidi a hero during an interview on the satellite news channel Al Jazeera and offered to defend him in court. A charity group run by Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi’s daughter Aicha said it planned to give Zaidi an award for bravery. “Because what he did represents a victory for human rights across the world,” Aicha Kadafi said.

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The images of Zaidi flinging his shoes, one after another, played repeatedly on Arab TV stations as well as American ones.

And for those without TV, Iranian radio obliged with sound effects. “Please listen again,” a radio announcer instructed the audience. “This is the sound of the shoe hitting the wall and missing President Bush.”

But across the Arab world, the reaction was mixed. In Iraq, many journalists said the act reflected poorly on them, and some Iraqis who consider Bush a hero for ousting Hussein were mortified.

“This is a serious precedent, that a journalist expresses his own opinion, and it will have negative impacts on other journalists working in Iraq,” said Iyad Malah, a radio reporter in Baghdad. “I think we will be asked to take off our shoes when we are invited to press conferences.”

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“I had to take two Valiums,” said pharmacist Abu Ali, who called the incident an affront to his people’s dignity.

The government’s National Media Center denounced the act, and the deputy director of the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, which advocates for press rights, also criticized Zaidi for acting in a non-objective manner.

“We are against this act, but we call for his protection,” said Hadi Jalw Marrai, adding that Zaidi was clearly under immense pressure when he exploded in anger. He called for Iraqi officials not to mistreat Zaidi, whose act appeared to have caught everyone, including his own family, by surprise.

Colleagues and relatives say Zaidi, who began working for Baghdadiya in 2005, is known for being passionate but not for engaging in wild acts. TV footage of his bachelor’s apartment in Baghdad showed a poster of Che Guevara and shelves lined with books. Photographs taken inside the apartment, where family members met journalists digging for information about Zaidi, showed a rack holding his other shoes. (One detail that emerged: Zaidi usually wears a size 9, not a 10, as Bush quipped about the footwear that flew past his head.)

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According to Zaidi’s brother, Thirgam, the family had not been notified of charges being filed as of Monday afternoon. He said he doubted Zaidi had planned to throw the shoes and he assumed it was a “spontaneous reaction.”

“He prepared no speeches. He never picked a close seat to the president. And we are all proud of what he did,” said his brother. “Like all Iraqis, we consider him a hero.”

Others who praised the shoe tosser said he was doing what most in the Middle East, and many elsewhere, longed to do themselves. Throwing a shoe at someone or slapping someone with the sole of a shoe, considered particularly unclean because it touches the ground, is seen as the ultimate insult in this culture. After American troops helped tear down a huge statue of Saddam Hussein in downtown Baghdad after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, many Iraqis slapped the statue with the soles of their shoes.

“He has done something great with his shoes. He is a symbol of the Iraqi people,” said Hussein Juma Gaza, one of thousands of Iraqis who heeded a call by anti-U.S. Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr to march Monday in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood to demand Zaidi’s release.

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Even many who disagreed with Zaidi’s behavior empathized with his anger toward Bush; the invasion has left tens of thousands of Iraqis dead, displaced more than 2 million, and damaged or destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure.

“I think his Iraq-ism overcame his feelings as a journalist,” said Sameer Alash, a university professor. “There are two kinds of people: the ones who can take the pain and the ones who can’t. I think he was from the second group.”

Bush, who was heading back to Washington after a stopover in Afghanistan, has downplayed the incident as Zaidi’s attempt to get attention. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave it a positive spin Monday during an interview with the Associated Press, calling it “a kind of sign of the freedom that people feel in Iraq.”

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tina.susman@latimes.com

Special correspondents Raed Rafei and Khaled Hijab in Beirut and Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran, Times staff writers Borzou Daragahi in Beirut and Usama Redha and Caesar Ahmed in Baghdad, and Noha El-Hennawy of The Times’ Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.


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