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IRAQ: Shoe tosser hits the big time

December 16, 2008 |  7:34 am

His Facebook fan club keeps on growing. Members of Iraq's parliament have taken up his cause. Activists are demanding his release from custody, and SMS jokes are flashing between mobile phones across the Middle East. Even comedian Jay Leno got in on the act, citing the bizarre case of Iraqi journalist Muntather Zaidi, better know as the "shoe thrower," on his latest show.

On Tuesday, two full days after his outburst during a Baghdad news conference with the president and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, Iraqi officials holding the journalist had yet to announce if he would face charges or if they would bow to protesters' demands and free him. Legal experts speculated Zaidi could face from two to seven years in prison if charged with assaulting a visiting dignitary.

But pressure is growing to let Zaidi go, even from journalists groups who said his behavior was over the top. The Facebook fan club created for Zaidi late Sunday had grown to 519 members on Tuesday, as university students, lawyers and some journalists marched in the northern city of Mosul to demand his release.

"I salute Zaidi for his bravery. He was able to express the vision of the Iraqi people against their occupiers," said one Iraqi newspaper reporter, Zinab Bakri. A Sunni lawmaker, Noureldeen Hiyali, held a news conference to defend Zaidi, saying the reporter had cracked after more than five years of war as seen through the close-up angle of a reporter.

Such sentiments are not limited to Iraq.

The story of the flying shoes was the most-viewed item on the website of the Ramallah newspaper al-Quds, and the more than 50 comments about it all favored Zaidi. "Heroes like this will restore our dignity," wrote one reader. "All of Gaza and its shoes are at your service," wrote another. One Palestinian named each shoe: One was the "Tomahawk missile"; the other was "the atomic shoe."

Sarcastic messages sent on mobile phones sneered that Bush planned to demand that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian journalists who accompany him to the White House on Friday take off their shoes. Another joked that Palestinian journalists were rushing to stock up on shoes as police raided shoe factories. One said that a journalist had been arrested trying to smuggle large-size shoes -- the better to smack someone with -- to Ramallah.

Academics and think-tankers can always be counted on to weigh in with serious observations on such incidents, and they have. Among other things, some in the United States are wondering how Zaidi was able to throw two shoes a few seconds apart without Bush's security detail leaping in front of the president to shield him. Many said the incident shows something few Americans understand: the depth of anger toward the United States for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

"There is a real undercurrent of hostility to the United States in Iraq, which I think a lot of Americans just don't get," says Marc Lynch , an associate professor of political science at George Washington University. The newly signed Status of Forces Agreement, which will let U.S. troops remain in Iraq through 2011, has led to greater rage, he says.

The shoe incident has been broadcast repeatedly on Arab television because many view it as someone finally telling Bush what the Iraqis really think, Lynch said. "There is a lot of that view: one brave man speaking truth to power," he said.

Kathleen Hicks, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, said the deep anger expressed in the shoe incident is not the prevailing view. But for those quarters of society angry about the war and the United States, the video of the news conference will remain a powerful symbol.

"If you live in the Arab world, it won't fade in a few days," Hicks said, adding taht it serves as a "very powerful symbol, a David-and-Goliath turn for some people." In the United States, Hicks said, discussion of the shoe incident will die down quickly, but the visual record will stick with Bush.
"If you watch the History Channel special on George W. Bush in 15 years," Hicks said, "chances are you are going to see the shoe throwing."

--Times staff writers

P.S. Get news from the Middle East in your mailbox every day. The Los Angeles Times distributes a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East, including the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can subscribe by logging in at the website here, clicking on the box for "L.A. Times updates" and then clicking on the "World: Mideast" box.

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