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Thousands of Iraqis have demonstrated in Baghdad’s Sadr City in support of a journalist being held in custody after throwing his shoes at George Bush, the US president.
Muntazer al-Zeidi was detained for what the Iraqi government on Monday said was a “barbaric and ignominious act” during a news conference the previous day.
The outgoing US leader, who was making a surprise visit to Baghdad, had just told reporters that while the war in Iraq was not over “it is decisively on its way to being won,” when al-Zeidi got to his feet and hurled abuse – and his footwear – at Bush.
Bush, who had been giving a joint press statement with Nuri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, ducked behind a podium as the shoes narrowly missed his head.
“Millions of Iraqis or rather millions of the people of the world wish to do what Muntadhar did,” Uday al-Zeidi, Mundathar’s brother, said on Monday.
“Thank God he had the guts to do it and avenge the Iraqi people and the country from those who plunder it and have killed its people.”
Al-Baghdadiya television, his employer, has demanded his release after Yasin Majeed, the prime minister’s media adviser, said al-Zeidi would be tried on charges of insulting the state.
An Iraqi lawyer told the AFP news agency that Zeidi risked a miminum of two years in prison if he is prosecuted for insulting a visiting head of state.
Freedom of expression
On Monday, al-Baghdadiya suspended its normal programming and played messages of support from across the Arab world.
A presenter read out a statement calling for his release, “in accordance with the democratic era and the freedom of expression that Iraqis were promised by US authorities”.
It said that any harsh measures taken against the reporter would be reminders of the “dictatorial era” that Washington said its forces had invaded Iraq to end.
Demonstrations also took place in the southern city of Basra and Najaf, where some people threw shoes at a US convoy.
Khalil al-Dulaimi, Saddam Hussein’s former lawyer, said he was forming a team to defend al-Zeidi and that around 200 lawyers, including Americans, had offered their services for free.”It was the least thing for an Iraqi to do to Bush, the tyrant criminal who has killed two million people in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said.
“Our defence of Zeidi will be based on the fact that the United States is occupying Iraq, and resistance is legitimate by all means, including shoes.”
In Iraqi culture, throwing shoes at someone is a sign of contempt and the incident is likely to serve as a lasting reminder of the widespread opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq – the conflict which has come to define Bush’s presidency.
“Throwing the shoes at Bush was the best goodbye kiss ever … it expresses how Iraqis and other Arabs hate Bush,” Musa Barhoumeh, editor of Jordan’s independent Al-Gahd newspaper, wrote.
But support has not been entirely universal and some Iraqis believe al-Zeidi crossed the line.
“I deem it unnecessary. This thing is unjustifiable. It is an incorrect style. We are not violent. One can voice his opinion in other ways,” one Baghdad resident said.
Robert Wood, a US state department spokesman, dismissed the incident saying that al-Zeidi was “trying to get attention for himself” and had ignored Washington’s successes in Iraq.
“This was one incident and one individual’s views, but if you look at the direction we are heading in Iraq now, it’s a very, very positive direction and we hope to see that continue,” he said.
Bush’s visit to the Iraqi capital came just 37 days before he hands the presidency over to Barack Obama, who has vowed to withdraw troops from Iraq.
AS a convoy of blue-and-white United Nations trucks loaded with food waited last night for Israeli permission to enter Gaza, Jindiya Abu Amra and her 12-year-old daughter went scrounging for the wild grass their family now lives on.
“We had one meal today – khobbeizeh,” said Abu Amra, 43, showing the leaves of a plant that grows along the streets of Gaza. “Every day, I wake up and start looking for wood and plastic to burn for fuel and I beg. When I find nothing, we eat this grass.”
Abu Amra and her unemployed husband have seven daughters and a son. Their tiny breeze-block house has had no furniture since they burnt the last cupboard for heat.
“I can’t remember seeing a fruit,” said Rabab, 12, who goes with her mother most mornings to scavenge. She is dressed in a tracksuit top and holed jeans, and her feet are bare.
Conditions for most of the 1.5m Gazans have deteriorated dramatically in the past month, since a truce between Israel and Hamas, the ruling Islamist party, broke down.
Israel says it will open the borders again when Hamas stops launching rockets at southern Israel. Hamas says it will crack down on the rocket launchers when Israel opens the borders.
The fragile truce technically ends this Thursday, and there have been few signs it will be renewed. Nobody knows how to resolve the stalemate. Secret talks are under way through Egyptian intermediaries, although both sides deny any contact.
Israel controls the borders and allows in humanitarian supplies only sporadically. Families had electricity for six hours a day last week. Cooking gas was available only through the illegal tunnels that run into Egypt, and by last week had jumped in price from 80 shekels per canister (£14) to 380 shekels (£66).
The UN, which has responsibility for 1m refugees in Gaza, is in despair. “The economy has been crushed and there are no imports or exports,” said John Ging, director of its relief and works agency.
“Two weeks ago, for the first time in 60 years, we ran out of food,” he said. “We used to get 70 to 80 trucks per day, now we are getting 15 trucks a day, and only when the border opens. We’re living hand to mouth.”
He has four days of food in stock for distribution to the most desperate – and no idea whether Israel will reopen the border. The Abu Amra family may have to eat wild grass for the foreseeable future.