Of all the things hurled at Americans during six years of war in Iraq, the shoe thrown by Muntadhar al-Zaidi at President George W. Bush during a press conference last year was among the least dangerous. But while the president, a former baseball player, deftly ducked the improvised missile like a pitcher evading a hot shot up the middle, the case has proven a powerful symbol of the widespread Iraqi distaste for the US military presence there and desire for a quick departure.
The hero status Mr. Zaidi, an Al-Baghdadia TV journalist who was released Tuesday after nine months in prison, has been accorded at home and in the broader Arab world is a measure of the wide hostility the American war effort has engendered among Iraqis from all walks of life.
Zaidi is a Shiite from the impoverished Baghdad suburb of Sadr city, a Shiite-dominated neighborhood that was systematically denied basic government services under the Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein and so was among the Iraqis who had the most to gain from the US invasion that overthrew Hussein. He also claims he was tortured in custody – something that would have likely to happen to him if he had been arrested before the US invasion.
Zaidi's shoe hurl heard round the world was accompanied by these words, which had millions of Iraqis nodding in agreement. "This is a farewell kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog," he shouted at then President Bush. "This is for the widows and orphans and all those killed in Iraq." To show the soles of one's shoes, and to call someone a dog, are both serious insults in the Arab world.
This hostility to the American presence will be something that Vice President Joe Biden will be grappling with on Tuesday, during an unannounced visit to Baghdad, the Iraqi capital. Mr. Biden will be meeting with Iraqi leaders and seek to pressure them to reconcile their religiously and ethnically split factions, something that has not been achieved to date. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, for his part, may bring up his tentative plan to hold a national referendum on withdrawing US combat troops faster than the current end of 2010 schedule.
While his claims of torture while in custody have not yet been confirmed (reporters who attended Mr. Zaidi's press conference after his release said he looked well except for a missing front tooth), most Iraqis assume they're true, since horrific human rights abuses have been commonplace in Iraqi prisons since at least 2005, just as they were under the deposed dictator Saddam Hussein.
An army doctor who served in Iraq and tried to protect detainees from what he termed widespread abuse by Iraq's Interior Ministry in 2005, says it doesn't appear human rights standards have improved since.
Speaking to Agence France Presse, Zaidi said he suffered numerous beatings while in custody. "At the time that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said on television that he could not sleep without being reassured on my fate ... I was being tortured in the worst ways, beaten with electric cables and iron bars," he said. "I am not a hero and I admit that. I am a person with a stance. I saw my country burning." While Zaidi's claims are unproven, a recent Monitor investigation into prison conditions in Iraq revealed the culture of prisoner abuse prevalent under Hussein persists today.
A family member told the New York Times that Zaidi intends to flee the country, since he says he wants to name the officials responsible for his alleged torture and that will put his life in danger if he stays in Iraq.
Zaidi's anger has been fed by his experiences since the war began. In November 2007 he was kidnapped and held for two days without food or water by unknown assailants and in January 2008 he was detained by US forces overnight while they searched his one bedroom flat. His family said he was released with the US forces apologies.
How likely is it that the US combat presence will be extended beyond the current 2010 deadline? Not very.