Punishment for the Shoe Thrower Puts al-Maliki in a Spot

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Evan Vucci / AP

It didn't take long for other shoes to drop. Muntazer al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who fastballed his shoes at President George W. Bush in Baghdad over the weekend, remains in custody, but his act of individual protest has feverishly rippled out across the country, sparking uproar in parliament and pride on the streets. The obscure correspondent for al-Baghdadiya, a satellite-TV channel that broadcasts from Cairo, could face from two to seven years' imprisonment for hurling his footwear at the U.S. President and for calling Bush a dog.

Iraq's parliamentarians, who rarely shy away from showboating, didn't disappoint either. There were rowdy scenes in the legislature as lawmakers from anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's bloc interrupted a discussion about the fate of non-U.S. troops in Iraq to demand al-Zaidi's immediate release. Noisy exchanges ensued, culminating with the mercurial speaker, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, threatening to resign. "I can't work in such a situation!" he shouted, according to lawmakers who attended the session. It's not clear if al-Mashhadani, who is known for his outbursts, will follow through. But the Sadrists, in particular, are keen to exploit the massive public sympathy for the Shi'ite reporter to turn up the heat on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki over the issue, especially ahead of provincial elections slated for Jan. 31. (See pictures of the shoe attack's aftermath.)

"The Sadrists were saying 'We are talking about having immunity for foreign troops here while an Iraqi is in prison for insulting a foreigner,'" says Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish lawmaker who attended the session. "They're trying to embarrass al-Maliki in an election year, to portray him as an American puppet." (See the Top 10 Awkward Moments of 2008.)

Al-Zaidi's case is now before the Iraqi judiciary, but few in Iraq expect the courts to have the last word in this case. The correspondent's actions were not merely an affront to the U.S. President; they discombobulated al-Maliki as well, who was standing beside Bush as he nimbly dodged the size-10 leather projectiles. Al-Zaidi has penned a letter of apology to the Prime Minister, asking for a pardon and saying his actions were directed squarely against Bush and not at al-Maliki, according to Omar Almashhadani, a spokesman for the Sunni Tawafuk parliamentary bloc. "It is too late now to regret the big and ugly act that I perpetrated," al-Zaidi wrote in the letter, according to the Associated Press. "That's going to help him in court," Almashhadani said, "but if he's tried and sentenced to a few years, it will leave al-Maliki with a bad reputation."

The Prime Minister has been trying to shed his reputation for being beholden to the U.S. Now the groundswell of public support for al-Zaidi's actions has made it even more difficult. The correspondent has become an instant folk hero not only in Iraq but also across a region that feels vindicated in some small measure that David got one over Goliath. In Jordan lawmakers observed a minute's silence in solidarity with the jailed reporter. An Egyptian man has reportedly offered his 20-year-old daughter in marriage to "this hero," telling the Gulf Daily News "this is something that would honor me." A Lebanese television channel has proffered al-Zaidi a job, with his salary effective "from the second he threw the shoe." There's a repressed glee in the many demonstrations across the Middle East in support of him, a sense of pride that an ordinary Arab furiously expressed the disdain and anger that many feel toward the U.S. President for his calamitous legacy in the Middle East. And that al-Zaidi did so using his shoes — an insult of choice in the Arab world — makes it even more delicious for many.

Iraq — indeed, the entire region — is watching what happens next to this formerly little-known Iraqi journalist. That leaves al-Maliki with few good options. The Prime Minister has worked hard in the past year to cultivate his nationalist bona fides, increasingly pushing back against Washington and driving a hard bargain on a recently approved bilateral security pact with the U.S. Yet those finely honed patriotic credentials could crumble if al-Maliki deals harshly with al-Zaidi.

Still, it's doubtful that al-Zaidi will be released without trial, despite the intense public pressure, merely because such public affronts to leaders are extremely rare in the Middle East and unlikely to go unpunished. Justice must not only be done but also be seen to be done, so he will probably be tried and then either released with a fine or a muted sentence, according to several parliamentarians. Few doubt that he will be convicted. "It's about what happens after the conviction," says Othman. "Al-Maliki could do something about it, then pardon him or release him with a fine. Many people support al-Zaidi." Othman adds: "People will blame al-Maliki if he is sentenced or if he's been tortured ... And we are in an election year." Al-Maliki must tread lightly to make sure that the most disdained item of clothing in the Arab world, the shoe, doesn't trample his ambitions at the ballot box.

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