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IRAQ: Iraqi who hurled shoes at Bush on trial

In a sometimes raucous 90-minute court appearance, Muntather Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who hurled his shoes at President George Bush during a news conference in Baghdad, went on trial Thursday in a jammed courtroom on charges of assaulting a visiting head of state. After hearing from three witnesses -- one of whom did not appear but presented a written statement -- the judge adjourned the trial until March 12 while technicalities were sorted out, but it was evident that Zaidi had plenty of backers, even among legal scholars.

More than 20 lawyers jostled for space around the wooden, cage-like enclosure where Zaidi stood, all claiming to defend him in some fashion. Relatives and friends filled the front two rows of the stone-floored courtroom. At least 200 more seats were jammed with foreign observers, journalists and regular spectators. Upon Zaidi's entry into the room, many supporters burst into applause and stood up, but the room quickly was silenced as the first witness was called to answer routine questions about the event.

Zaidi, wearing a brown suit, black loafers and an Iraqi flag draped cravat-like around his neck, ignored the chair placed in his cage and stood throughout the proceeding. When it came time to answer the chief judge's questions, he described his boiling rage during the Dec. 14 news conference inside Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone. Zaidi said he took offense at the idea that Bush's security contingent insisted on searching the Iraqi media before the news conference, even after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's security already had scanned them for weapons or other contraband.

As Bush, standing beside Maliki, spoke of U.S. accomplishments in Iraq, Zaidi said he thought only of the Iraqis killed and displaced since the U.S. invasion of March 2003. Describing the moment when he pulled off one shoe, then another, and threw them full force toward Bush's head, Zaidi said everything went black except the target. "At that moment, I did not see anything except George Bush," Zaidi said, speaking in a clipped, high-pitched voice. Zaidi said it was a spontaneous act and that he did not intend to seriously harm or kill Bush -- only to express his emotions and those of other Iraqis.

Now, the three-judge panel must decide on a technical issue related to the charge. Zaidi's defense is arguing that the accusation of assaulting a visiting head of state doesn't hold water because Bush was not on an "official visit" but, rather, was a surprise guest. They also argue that as long as Bush was in the Green Zone, which was under U.S. control, he should not be considered a visitor to Iraq.

Zaidi's legal team also is arguing that the act should be considered an example of free expression and, hence, not criminal.

And what if the shoes had hit Bush square in the forehead and drawn blood? One of his chief lawyers, Yahya Attabi, dismissed the suggestion as preposterous. "It was a light shoe," he said after the trial adjourned. "There were no nails protruding, and it was leather. Even if it were thrown strongly, it would not have hurt him."

Zaidi, meanwhile, remains in custody and faces up to 15 years in prison if he is convicted. He has said he was beaten badly in custody, but Zaidi, a short, slightly pudgy man, appeared fit and strong Thursday. As court was adjourned, friends and relatives rushed the wooden cage as court guards yelled at them to back off and frantically waved their arms to try to clear the room. In the corridor outside, more guards stood side by side and joined hands, forming a human chain to hold back the crowds surging forward to glimpse Zaidi. Zaidi smiled broadly and held his fist in the air as he was led through the courthouse back to his cell.

-- Tina Susman and Raheem Salman in Baghdad

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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