Chavez hails 'courageous' Iraqi shoe thrower

Arab world demands Baghdad release its 'hero'


Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez said on Monday that an Iraqi reporter who threw his shoes at U.S. President George W. Bush was courageous as
Iraq faced mounting calls to release the journalist who is still in custody.

Chavez, who has himself hurled insults at the U.S. president over the years, said he was glad the shoes didn't hit Bush but smiled broadly during a video of the incident played during a cabinet meeting broadcast on Venezuela television.

"It's a good thing it didn't hit him. I'm not encouraging throwing shoes at anybody, but really, what courage," he said.

Venezuelan state television repeatedly replayed a clip of the shoe throwing incident on Monday.

Iraqi journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi threw two shoes at Bush and called him a "dog" and said "this is for the widows and children of Iraq" during a Baghdad news conference on Sunday, an act that has won him instant fame across the world and wide support in the Middle East.

Durgham Zaidi said his brother Muntazer has a broken arm and ribs after being struck by Iraqi security agents.

"He has got a broken arm and ribs, and cuts to his eye and arm," said Durgham.

Durgham said he had been told that his brother was being held by Iraqi forces in the heavily fortified Green Zone compound in central Baghdad where the U.S. embassy and most government offices are housed.

It's a good thing it didn't hit him. I'm not encouraging throwing shoes at anybody, but really, what courage

Hugo Chavez

Arab hero

Meanwhile, although the Iraqi government branded the act as shameful and Washington said Zaidi did not represent the majority of Iraqi people, the Arab world hailed the incident as an ideal parting gift to an unpopular U.S. president.

"Throwing the shoes at Bush was the best goodbye kiss ever... it expresses how Iraqis and other Arabs hate Bush," wrote Musa Barhoumeh, editor of Jordan's independent Al-Gahd newspaper.

Thousands of Iraqis joined demonstrations to protest at Bush's farewell visit to Iraq and demanded Baghdad immediately release Zaidi.

A Baghdad shopkeeper Hamza Mahdi, 30 said: "I don't like Bush, but I don't agree with this action -- it's not civilized," he said. "Journalists should use pen and paper to make their point and not their shoes."

One of his customers, Um Seif, 45, disagreed. "Me, I support him. Everyone should support him," she said. "Don't you remember what the Americans did to us? Have you already forgotten?"

Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's movement called him a hero and a Sunni Muslim body labeled him an "icon of the resistance against the occupation."

And in Libya, a charity headed by Muammar Gaddafi's daughter Aisha announced it would award Zaidi an "order of courage" for his actions. In Lebanon, the Shiite militant group Hezbollah said he should be regarded as a hero.

Throwing the shoes at Bush was the best goodbye kiss ever... it expresses how Iraqis and other Arabs hate Bush.

Jordanian editor

Dream come true

Zaidi, 29, had long dreamt of a dramatic gesture to symbolize his opposition to the war that brought death and destruction to his country.

Although both shoes missed their target, Zaidi captured the world's attention with an act colleagues said he had plotted for months because he "detested America" and the man who ordered the war on his country.

His brother Durgham said Zaidi had been detained for a day by U.S. forces at the beginning of the year and that he had been kidnapped in the heart of Baghdad in November 2007 and held for a week by unknown captors.

The Baghdad-born Zaidi lives alone in a furnished two-room apartment in the capital on Rashid Road, the city's historic centre.

An AFP journalist who visited the building on Monday said his home contained books on politics and religion in Arabic and English, as well as a photograph of revolutionary icon Ernesto 'Che' Guevara.

"He devoted most of his time to Al-Baghdadia, the Egypt-based news channel, which he joined at its launch in September 2005," Zaidi's 32-year-old brother Durgham told AFP.

"He's a rather nervous type, and above all hates violence and the bombing," he added.

"Like everyone in our family he hates the occupation and considers Bush to have destroyed Iraq and killed its people. His actions restore Iraqi dignity."

Zaidi's aunt Umm Zaman, who lives in the same building, described her nephew's deed as the realization of a long-held wish.

"For a long time he has wanted to hit Bush with a shoe, and at last his dream has come true," she said.