Thursday, February 24, 2011

Shoe-throwing reporter returns to Iraq for first time since release, detained by Iraqi army

Shoe-throwing reporter returns to Iraq for first time since release, detained by Iraqi army

BAGHDAD — The Iraqi reporter arrested for throwing his shoes at former President George W. Bush has returned to the country for his first public visit since being freed from prison, and was forcibly detained for questioning Thursday by the Iraqi army.

Muntadhar al-Zeidi became a celebrity in the Arab world after throwing his shoes at Bush during a news conference in December 2008 and calling him a dog. After being freed from an Iraqi prison in 2009 at the end of his nine-month sentence, he left the country and had not appeared publicly in Iraq since.

One of al-Zeidi's brothers told The Associated Press that he returned Tuesday to join anti-government protests scheduled to take place all over Iraq on Friday.

Iraqi officials are on high alert ahead of Friday's protests, which have been billed as a "Day of Rage." Iraqis have been holding a number of small-scale protests around the country to demand better government services, more assistance for widows and orphans and greater protection for human rights.

Al-Zeidi left a mosque in a Sunni neighbourhood of Baghdad Thursday and then visited a nearby cemetery. He was then confronted by an Iraqi army commander backed up by soldiers who said al-Zeidi should come with them for questioning.

An Associated Press photographer who witnessed the exchange said the former journalist asked whether he was under arrest and the commander said he was not.

Al-Zeidi refused to go with them and was forcibly led away by soldiers who gripped his arms on either side and escorted him to a waiting Humvee. Iraqi military personnel holding rifles forbid a crowd of photographers from taking photos of the altercation.

A Baghdad military spokesman did not respond to repeated requests for information about the incident.

Al-Zeidi was convicted of assault for the 2008 incident in which he threw both his shoes at Bush and shouted: "This is your farewell kiss, you dog!" His prison time included three months in solitary confinement and he alleges he was beaten and electrocuted by interrogators.

He now lives in neighbouring Lebanon and is suing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was standing next to Bush during the news conference and was deeply embarrassed by the outburst, in a Swiss court.

Al-Zeidi became an instant celebrity in the Middle East, where passions over the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq run deep. His celebrity was on display Thursday in the neighbourhood of Azamiyah where al-Zeidi was visiting before he was taken for questioning. Residents reached out to hug and kiss him on the cheek and warmly welcomed him home.

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