Shoe Journalist's Arrest Sparks Iraq Protests

Several thousand people demonstrated in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities to demand the release of the Iraqi TV reporter who hurled his shoes at President Bush. Muntadhar al-Zeidi was arrested after Sunday's incident and charges may be filed against him.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

In Iraq, thousands of people took to the streets today to demand the release of the journalist who threw his shoes at President Bush during his visit to Iraq yesterday. The Iraqi government is interrogating the reporter, and there may be charges filed. But reaction in Iraq and across the Middle East has been largely supportive of his actions. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro joins us from the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. Lourdes, take us back to yesterday. What exactly happened at this press conference?

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, this Iraqi journalist, his name is Muntadhar al-Zeidi. He works for the Al-Baghdadiyah channel. And he was at this press conference with President Bush with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and he threw both of his shoes at President Bush. He shouted, this is a gift from the Iraqis. This is a farewell kiss, you dog. And then when he threw a second shoe, he said, this is from the widows, the orphans, and those who were killed in Iraq. And throwing your shoes in the Middle East is considered a supreme insult, so it was extremely humiliating.

BLOCK: What more have you been able to find out about who he is and what motivated him to launch his shoes toward President Bush?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's a 28-year-old unmarried Shiite and his is the story of many Iraqis here who since the U.S. invasion have been affected in one way or another by the violence. Zeidi joined the Al-Baghdadiyah television channel in 2005 after graduating from Baghdad University. In 2007, he was seized by gunmen while on assignment. A few days later he was released. His family says he was also briefly detained by the U.S. military, and he seems to have developed a deep dislike of the American presence here.

One of our local reporters knows him quite well and says he was always an outspoken critic of the U.S. military presence here. No one knows quite why he did it. The Iraqi government has said that they're trying to determine whether or not someone sponsored his actions. His family say that they believe it was a spontaneous act. And of course, many Iraqis are viewing him as a folk hero, someone who stood up to the American president.

BLOCK: And what does his TV station, Al-Baghdadiyah, have to say about what he did?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, Al-Baghdadiyah is basically using this as quite - they're trying to leverage his release by showing his picture over and over again with triumphal music in the background and a scrolling ticker asking for his release. They're trying to put a lot of pressure on the Iraqi government to have him sprung. Because at the moment what we're hearing is that he is being interrogated and that there may be charges filed against him.

BLOCK: You know, we mentioned thousands of people in the streets in Baghdad. What have you been hearing from people there? What's the word on the street about what happened yesterday?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I mean, he really is the talk of the town. We went out to talk to people today, and we had trouble finding anyone who condemned his actions. In fact, people seem to really feel that he was a national hero. There were at least two large protests, one in Baghdad in the Shiite slum of Sadr City, the other in Najaf. They were asking for his release. They were holding up their shoes. One group even threw a couple of shoes at a passing U.S. convoy. And there are also jokes going around as well from cell phone to cell phone. One pretends to be from the Iraqi prime minister, you get this kind of text message that pretends to be from Nouri Al-Maliki and President Bush, and it says they are asking all American and Iraqi citizens to remove their shoes for security reasons.

BLOCK: OK, NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Baghdad. Lourdes, thanks very much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

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