BAGHDAD – It was the hottest ticket in town, drawing spectators from as far away as Sweden and sparking a scramble for choice seats. Police formed human chains to block crowds that surged to glimpse the star attraction: a defiant-looking man in black loafers.
This time, Muntadher al-Zeidi’s loafers stayed on as he went on trial Thursday for hurling his shoes at President George W. Bush during a news conference in Baghdad in December. If convicted of assaulting a visiting head of state, the Iraqi journalist could face 15 years in prison. But with a legal dream team objecting to the case on technicalities, court was adjourned after 90 minutes until March 12, when a three-judge panel will decide if the charge is warranted.
Nobody questions whether al-Zeidi, 30, flung his footwear at the president’s face during his farewell visit to Iraq on Dec. 14. Nor does al-Zeidi deny trying to clock Bush as he stood at a lectern beside Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, shortly before the two leaders sat down to dinner.
On Thursday, standing inside the wooden defendant’s pen, al-Zeidi said he acted in a burst of rage as Bush, “smiling that icy smile,” spoke of achievements in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion of March 2003 and mentioned his upcoming meal with al-Maliki.
Al-Zeidi, voice calm but forceful and an Iraqi flag draped like a cravat around his neck, said it was more than he could bear.
“I thought about what the achievements were – killing about a million Iraqis,” al-Zeidi said.
Everything in the room faded to black, he said, except his target as he yanked off his shoes and threw them, one after another. “I didn’t see anything but Bush.”
Al-Zeidi’s legal team, more than 20 lawyers who jostled for space around the pen, cited two principal reasons why their client should not have been charged.
Bush was a drop-in guest, they said, not an official visitor to Iraq, so al-Zeidi should not face charges of assaulting a visiting dignitary. Second, they maintained that because the act occurred in the U.S.-controlled Green Zone, Bush was not technically visiting Iraq at the time.
Beneath those legal quibbles lies what al-Zeidi’s supporters consider the main issue: freedom to publicly oppose the U.S. presence in Iraq. They argue that throwing one’s shoes and calling someone a dog, as al-Zeidi did – both supreme insults in the Middle East – were his way of protesting the war and the ongoing presence of more than 140,000 U.S. troops.
“My professors tell me this trial is unfair,” said one of al-Zeidi’s brothers, Maitham, a law student in Baghdad who held court at a cafe beneath a giant shade tree outside the courthouse before the session opened.
Maitham was there along with three of al-Zeidi’s five sisters, as well as aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews, and two other brothers. He said he would not feel different if the fast-flying shoes had hit their target and drawn blood. Neither touched Bush.
“It’s the principle,” he said. “It was just to insult George Bush. It’s freedom of expression.”
Asked if it would be all right for someone to hurl shoes at al-Maliki if he visited the United States, Maitham replied, “Yes, if al-Maliki occupied you!”
As he spoke, the al-Zeidi clan crowded around tables drinking tea and eating a breakfast of meat tucked into soft, white bread. The men wore loafers, most in the style favored by Iraqi males – leather, with square toes bending upward like banana boats.
Attorney Yayha Attabi, a loafer-wearer himself, scoffed at the idea that leather shoes such as the ones his client threw could hurt anyone. “It was a light shoe,” Attabi said of the offending footwear, which lawyers say was destroyed by security forces for fear it might be rigged to blow up.
“There were no nails protruding. It was soft leather. Even if it were thrown strongly, it would not have hurt him,” Attabi said, speaking outside court at the close of the session.
The hearing began promptly at 10 a.m. inside a vast courtroom with white stone floors, wooden benches and heavy green drapes. As the defendant entered the courtroom, applause erupted and most spectators stood up, either to get a better look or to express support. Al-Zeidi glanced at the crowd but remained poker-faced.
The judge ordered quiet as al-Zeidi entered the pen. Two witnesses briefly gave accounts of the incident and suggested that al-Zeidi’s claims of having been beaten savagely by those who grabbed him after he threw his shoes were exaggerated.
When his turn came, al-Zeidi testified that he had been subjected to electric shocks and beatings while in jail. He also acknowledged that he had practiced throwing his shoes in hopes of one day having the chance to hurl some at Bush. But he denied that he went into the Dec. 14 news conference planning to do it.
Instead, al-Zeidi said, his emotions took over. “I was feeling that the blood of Iraqis was flowing beneath my feet, and he (Bush) was smiling,” al-Zeidi said, as a man in the front row wept.