Was it an act of rudeness or bravery? While Muntadhar al-Zeidi appeared before a Baghdad judge Thursday for hurling shoes at President Bush, the court of public opinion is still split over whether he's a hero or an embarrassment.
Mr. Zeidi's friends and family cheered and ululated as the Arab world's most famous journalist was escorted into Baghdad's central criminal court. An aunt, Nuwal Lazim, thrust a scarf patterned after the Iraqi flag at him. He kissed it before tossing it on his neck.
But since the Dec. 14 shoe-throwing affair was beamed around the world, overshadowing Mr. Bush's farewell tour, many Iraqis have privately complained Zeidi's actions toward a guest were inexcusable.
Whether or not Bush was a guest is indeed the crux of Zeidi's defense – and he had 16 defense lawyers ready to argue that case. Though he admitted to even practicing tossing his shoes at the president, he claims Bush wasn't invited here, so he can't be guilty of insulting a visiting dignitary.
Zeidi's lawyers argue that Bush represents an occupying force and came to Baghdad uninvited. Therefore, their client should only face a fine for attempted assault against an ordinary citizen – a crime that carries only a fine. If convicted of assaulting a head-of-state he could face 15 years in prison.
The court adjourned until March 12 to decide whether the defense's argument is valid.
Regardless of what Iraqis really think of Zeidi and his shoes, he has certainly emerged as a cult hero here and throughout the Arab world. When he stood on the dock, he explained that he had been waiting for two years to deliver the message to Bush regarding the suffering that Iraqis have endured throughout the war.
"As an Iraqi journalist I know these things very well," he said. "At that moment I imagined Bush was standing in Iraqi blood."
He said he did not intend to hurt Bush but had dreamed of carrying out the protest since 2006 when he videotaped himself practicing throwing the shoes in hopes that he would be able to attend a press conference with Bush in Jordan.
Zeidi, a Baghdad correspondent for the Cairo-based Al-Baghdadiya TV channel, has been in Iraqi custody since Dec.14 when he took off the first shoe and then the other and hurled them at Bush's head during a press conference in Baghdad's Green Zone. As he threw them, he shouted that it was retribution from Iraqi widows and orphans.
Bush ducked and laughed off the incident but it deeply embarrassed Mr. Maliki, who was standing beside Bush. Zeidi was wrestled to the ground and dragged away. His family and defense lawyers say a chipped tooth is proof that he was beaten in custody.
Zeidi, neatly dressed in an olive green jacket and trousers, stood throughout the 90-minute trial in the court building that formerly housed a museum for gifts to Saddam Hussein from foreign delegations and heads of state. The chief justice presided from an elevated platform in the marble-panelled room.
The journalist told chief judge Abdul Ameer Hassan al-Rubaie that he became enraged before the news conference when the US security detail insisted on searching Iraqis again, even though they had been repeatedly searched by Iraqi forces.
During the press conference he watched Bush smile and talk about having dinner with Maliki. He told the judge that all he could think of where the Iraqis who had been killed, the orphans and widows left behind, and the houses and mosques violated by American soldiers.
Dressed in defense attorney garb of black and green robes, Ghalib Muhammad al-Rubaie says there's no way that Bush should have been considered an invited guest to Iraq. "He entered Iraq like a thief," he says.
"It's the Americans who don't respect the law ... what about Abu Ghraib and Haditha?" he says, referring, respectively, to the notorious US-run detention center were prisoners were abused and the killing of Iraqi women and children by marines in 2006.
Asked by his brother, Maitham, to help represent Zeidi, the lawyer was dropped because of a procedural matter in Thursday's trial. Mr. Rubaie, the lawyer, said he would continue to represent him, even if by force.
As the judge announced the adjournment, security forces outside linked arms to keep spectators and relatives away, letting only his brothers and sisters through for a 15-minute meeting. Zeidi, one of three brothers and five sisters, has helped support the family since their father and mother died. His father retired from the Iraqi Army in 1979 after being blinded while fighting Kurdish forces in the north of Iraq.
"I'm worried they will beat him again," says his younger sister Dunya, who sobbed when he was led into the courtroom and again after she saw her brother.
Even Zeidi's shoes have become icons.
"When we asked for the shoes as evidence the directorate announced the shoes had been ruined in the lab tests and they couldn't give them back. They became like a holy object – emanating light like a halo – they didn't want them to inspire others," says chief defense lawyer Dhia Sadi, mockingly.
Zeidi's TV station has been running regular call-in programs from viewers professing their support – and affection for the jailed journalist. One Syrian woman Wednesday launched into a poem she had written, which ends: "Long live Muntadhar's shoes –long live Iraqi dignity."