BAGHDAD — President Bush on Sunday made a valedictory visit to Iraq, the country that will largely define his legacy, but the trip will more likely be remembered for the unscripted moment when an Iraqi journalist hurled his shoes at Bush's head and denounced him on live television as a "dog" who had delivered death and sorrow here in nearly six years of war.
Hitting someone with a shoe is considered the supreme insult in Iraq. It means that the target is even lower than the shoe, which is always on the ground and dirty. The drama unfolded shortly after Bush appeared at a news conference in Baghdad with Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki to highlight the newly adopted security agreement between the United States and Iraq. That agreement includes a commitment to withdraw all American forces by the end of 2011.
The Iraqi journalist, Muntader al-Zaidi, 28, a correspondent for Al Baghdadia, an independent Iraqi station, stood up about 12 feet from Bush and shouted in Arabic: "This is a gift from the Iraqis; this is the farewell kiss, you dog!" He then threw a shoe at Bush, who ducked and narrowly avoided it.
As stunned security agents and guards, officials and journalists watched, Zaidi then threw his other shoe, shouting in Arabic, "This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq!" That shoe also narrowly missed Bush as Maliki stuck a hand in front of the president's face to shield him.
Maliki's security agents jumped on the man, wrestled him to the floor and hustled him out of the ornate room where the news conference was taking place. They kicked him and beat him until "he was crying like a woman," said Mohammed Taher, a reporter for Afaq, a station owned by the Dawa Party, which is led by Maliki. Zaidi was then detained on unspecified charges.
Other Iraqi journalists in the front row of the news conference publicly apologized to Bush, who was uninjured and tried to brush off the incident by making a joke. "All I can report is it is a size 10," he said, continuing to take a few questions and noting the apologies.
He also called the incident a sign of democracy in the country, saying, "That's what people do in a free society, draw attention to themselves," as the man's screaming could be heard outside.
But the moment clearly unnerved the aides of Maliki and some of the Americans in Bush's entourage, partly because it was televised and may have revealed a security lapse in the so-called Green Zone, the most heavily secured part of Baghdad. Dana Perino, the White press secretary, was visibly distraught, and NBC News reported she had been struck in the face by a microphone in the chaos.
The shoe-throwing incident also punctuated Bush's visit — his fourth — in a deeply symbolic way, reflecting the conflicted views in Iraq of a man who had toppled Saddam Hussein, ordered the occupation of the country and brought it the kind of freedoms unthinkable under Hussein's rule but at enormous costs.
Zaidi's motivations in carrying out a potentially career-ending act were unclear, but friends described him as a devoted journalist. "He was committed to his job and after training in Lebanon became chief of correspondents about a month ago," said Haider Nassar, who worked with him at Baghdadia.
"He had bad feelings about the coalition forces," said Nassar, referring to the U.S.-led foreign military forces in Iraq. Nassar also said Zaidi had asked to cover the news conference, since he was the chief correspondent. Another friend said Zaidi often ended his reports by saying "Reporting from occupied Baghdad, this is Muntader al-Zaidi."
Like many Iraqi reporters at the news conference, Nassar said he did not think this was an effective way for Zaidi to make his points. "This is so silly; it's just the behavior of an individual. He destroyed his future," he said.
The television channel broadcast a request for Zaidi's release in the name of democracy and freedom of speech. "Any procedure against Muntader will remind us of the behavior of the dictatorship and their violent actions, random detentions and mass graves," the channel said. "Baghdadia TV channel also demands that the international and Iraqi television organizations cooperate in seeking the release of Muntader al-Zaidi."
Shortly before 10 p.m., Bush left the Green Zone by helicopter to Camp Victory, where he was greeted with cheers and whoops from hundreds of troops inside the enormous rotunda of the Al Faw palace. Speaking at a lectern beneath an enormous American flag that nearly reached the domed ceiling, he praised this generation of soldiers and reflected on the sacrifice of those who had died.
Bush's arrival in Iraq during daylight hours had been one measure of progress; his first visit on Thanksgiving Day 2003 took place entirely at night.
Bush also got a firsthand look today at the deteriorating situation in the 7-year-old Afghanistan war, amid preparations in his administration to hand a broad strategy overhaul over to President-elect Obama and to significantly increase the U.S. troop presence.
Bush spoke to U.S. soldiers and Marines stationed in Afghanistan at a hangar on the tarmac at Bagram Air Base."Afghanistan is a dramatically different country than it was eight years ago," he said. "We are making hopeful gains."