BAGHDAD – The Iraqi television reporter who threw his shoes at former President George W. Bush in one of the more bizarre episodes of the Iraq war might use his new iconic status in Iraq to promote humanitarian causes, his family said.
The reporter, Muntadhar al-Zeidi, is to be released Monday after nine months in prison. He will be greeted by a nation where many feel his act of protest encapsulated their own bitterness over the war and U.S. occupation.
Parties and music are planned at his family’s home in Baghdad, where his brother was hanging posters of him on Thursday. But the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was deeply embarrassed by the outburst, will not be celebrating.
The prime minister was standing beside Bush during his final visit to Baghdad as president on Dec. 14 when the journalist shot up from his seat at a press conference and whipped his shoes one by one toward the president’s head while calling him a dog.
Bush was unhurt but had to duck twice in a stunning moment captured on TV and replayed countless times.
In March, al-Zeidi was convicted of assault. His three-year prison sentence was reduced to one because he had no prior record and now he is to be released three months early for good behaviour.
Al-Zeidi, a 30-year-old bachelor who was a virtual unknown working for a minor TV network, now has undeniable star power and is contemplating his future.
“My understanding is that al-Zeidi might quit his work as a journalist because he is sure that he will be turned away or boycotted by government officials,” his brother Dargham said. “Rather, he told me he is interested in working in a humanitarian organization or becoming an activist for women’s and orphans’ rights.”
He has also had offers to go into politics for several independent parties, but he has declined, his brother said.
His employer, Al-Baghdadiya TV, is certain he will return to work there, however, in a comeback that would likely boost the small network’s viewership numbers. The Iraqi channel headquartered in Cairo has continued to pay his salary during his time in prison and even bought him a new house.
“As far as I know, and from what he has told me – and I speak to him weekly – he will come back to work for Al-Baghdadiya,” said station manager Abdul-Hamid al-Sayah. “He is very attached to the station.”
The manager, speaking from Cairo, said the network continues to stand by him.
“We don’t condone a journalist using a shoe to express himself,” al-Sayah said. “But when you read his background and his story, you understand his frustration with the occupation and his nationalistic feelings.”
The station plans a press conference with al-Zeidi and a talk show appearance where he will explain his actions and assure fellow reporters that “he does understand and respect the noble profession of journalism,” al-Sayah said.
At al-Zeidi’s office in Baghdad on Thursday, a cleaner was dusting his chair and computer. Colleagues were hanging pictures, including one showing al-Zeidi flinging open a jail cell door and stepping out along with a pair of doves.
Al-Sayah said the reporter might travel abroad to recuperate and was welcome to choose to work for the station outside of Iraq. The network has offices in Jordan, Egypt and Syria.
Some questioned how al-Zeidi would be able to work again as a journalist in Iraq, where government officials offended by his moment of rage are inclined to avoid him.
“Al-Zeidi’s situation in Iraq will not be an easy one,” said political analyst Nabil Salim. “Because of his fame, some anti-government politicians will try to make use of al-Zeidi in their election campaigns, while some government officials will always look at him with suspicion and it will be very difficult for them to deal with him.”
His family, meanwhile, is worried about his safety and will try to keep celebrations small because of security concerns, his brother Dargham said.
In 2007, al-Zeidi, a Shiite, was kidnapped by gunmen while on an assignment in a Sunni district of north Baghdad. He was freed unharmed three days later after Iraqi television stations broadcast appeals for his release.
Then in January 2008, he was arrested by American soldiers who searched his apartment building and released him the next day with an apology.
Those experiences helped mould his resentment of the U.S. military’s presence in Iraq.
Many in Iraq and around the Middle East share those feelings – one of the reasons his act was so widely celebrated. It inspired Internet games and T-shirts and led some to try to offer their daughters to him in marriage.
There were also reports that a Saudi man wanted to pay $10 million for one of the shoes.
His shoes, however, won’t become museum pieces or anything else – investigators destroyed them trying to determine if they contained explosives.
Associated Press Writers Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad and Hadeel al-Shalchi in Cairo contributed to this report.