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Iraq shoe-thrower: Bush's smiling face enraged me

BAGHDAD - The Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at former President George W. Bush made an impassioned courtroom appeal for clemency on the first day of his trial today, saying he became enraged when he saw Bush smiling and joking with Iraq's prime minister.

Muntadher al-Zaidi, 30, was hailed as a hero throughout the Arab world for his shoe-throwing protest last Dec. 14, during Bush's visit to Baghdad.

Bush ducked and avoided both shoes, as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki raised his hand to try to protect the president.

- Click here to see photos of the shoe attack

Zaidi is charged with assaulting a visiting foreign leader, which carries a maximum of 15 years imprisonment. But his defense team hopes to make the case a test case of the country's new democratic freedoms, and to reduce the charge to a lesser one.

Baghdad's Central Criminal Court, located inside the heavily fortified Green Zone, erupted in chants and cheers from Zaidi's relatives when he entered the room. His aunts and sisters ululated, and one of them thrust into Zaidi's hands an Iraqi flag, which he kissed and then draped around his shoulders.

A single witness from Maliki's office recounted in detail the moment, witnessed on TV screens around the world, when Zaidi took off his shoes and hurled them at Bush, shouting: "This is your farewell kiss, you dog!"

The chief judge, Abdul Amir al-Hasan, then asked Zaidi about a statement he made to an investigating judge in which he described how he had long harbored ambitions to throw shoes at Bush, and had even filmed himself practicing throwing the shoes.

Zaidi claimed the statement was untrue and had been extracted under torture, including electric shocks.

Rather, he said, he acted spontaneously after listening to Bush praise the "achievements" made in Iraq at the press conference with Maliki.

"While he was talking I was looking at all his achievements in my mind. More than a million killed, the destruction and humiliation of mosques, violations against Iraqi women, attacking Iraqis every day and every hour," he said.

"A whole people are saddened because of his policy, and he was talking with a smile on his face and he was joking with the prime minister and saying he was going to have dinner with him after the press conference.

"Believe me, I didn't see anything around me except Bush," Zaidi continued. "I was blind to anything else. I felt the blood of the innocent people bleeding from beneath his feet and he was smiling in that way. And then he was going to have a dinner, after he destroyed one million martyrs, after he destroyed the country.

"So I reacted to this feeling by throwing my shoes. I couldn't stop the reaction inside me .It was spontaneous."

The judge appears to be trying to determine whether the shoe throwing was a premeditated act, which could carry a worse penalty than a spontaneous one, defense attorneys said.

"What Munthader al-Zaidi did was not murder or intention to kill, but the expression of his rejection of the occupation of Iraq, and the Iraqi constitution guarantees the right of freedom of expression," said Dhiya al-Saadi, his lead defense lawyer. "Especially as we know that shoes do not harm or kill."

The judge also listened to Zaidi's argument that Bush was not on an official visit because the trip, in common with those of all senior US officials, was not announced in advance.

He ordered a postponement until March 12 pending a request to the prime minister's office to determine the exact nature of Bush's visit.

If the visit is deemed unofficial, then the defense team hopes the charge against him can be reduced to one of "attempted assault without harm," which typically only carries a fine.

If the visit is deemed official, then the defense aims to convince the judge to reduce the charge to one of "insulting a foreign visitor," which carries a maximum 2-year penalty.

- Click here to see photos of the shoe attack

- Click here to see photos of other famous shoe incidents in history

lsly@tribune.com

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