KABUL, Afghanistan – On a whirlwind trip shrouded in secrecy and marred by dissent, President George W. Bush on Sunday hailed progress in the wars that define his presidency and got a size-10 reminder of his unpopularity when a man hurled two shoes at him during a news conference in Iraq.
“This is your farewell kiss, you dog!” shouted the protester in Arabic, later identified as Muntadar al-Zeidi, a correspondent for Al-Baghdadia television, an Iraqi-owned station based in Cairo, Egypt. “This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq.”
Bush ducked both shoes as they whizzed past his head and landed with a thud against the wall behind him.
“It was a size 10,” Bush joked later.
The president visited the Iraqi capital just 37 days before he hands the war off to his successor, Barack Obama, who has pledged to end it. Bush wanted to highlight a drop in violence and to celebrate a recent U.S.-Iraq security agreement, which calls for U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011.
“The war is not over,” Bush said, but “it is decisively on it’s way to being won.”
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.
In Iraq, nearly 150,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, protecting the fragile democracy. More than 4,209 members of the U.S. military have died and $576 billion has been spent since the war began five years and nine months ago.
In Afghanistan, there are about 31,000 U.S. troops, and commanders have called for up to 20,000 more. The fight is especially difficult in southern Afghanistan, a stronghold of the Taliban where violence has risen sharply this year.
Polls show most Americans believe the U.S. erred in invading Iraq in 2003. Bush ordered the nation into war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq while citing intelligence claiming the Mideast nation harbored weapons of mass destruction. The weapons were never found, the intelligence was discredited, and Bush’s credibility with U.S. voters plummeted.
“There is still more work to be done,” Bush said after his meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
It was at that point the journalist stood up and threw a shoe from about 20 feet away. Bush ducked, and it narrowly missed his head. The second shoe came quickly, and Bush ducked again while several Iraqis grabbed the man and dragged him to the floor.
In Iraqi culture, throwing shoes at someone is a sign of contempt.
White House press secretary Dana Perino suffered an eye injury when she was hit in the face with a microphone during the melee. Bush brushed off the incident. “So what if a guy threw his shoe at me?” he said.
Al-Maliki, who spoke before the incident, praised postwar progress: “Today, Iraq is moving forward in every field.”
After the news conference, the president took a 15-minute helicopter ride to Camp Victory. Telling hundreds of troops he was “heading into retirement,” Bush blamed Saddam for the 2003 invasion and said “America is safer and more secure” than it was before the war.
The Bush administration and even White House critics credit last year’s military buildup with the security gains in Iraq. Last month, attacks fell to the lowest monthly level since the war began in 2003.