President George W. Bush wrapped up a whirlwind trip to two war zones Monday that in many ways was a victory lap without a clear victory. A signature event occurred when an Iraqi reporter hurled two shoes at Bush, an incident the president later described as "a bizarre moment." Bush visited the Iraqi capital just 37 days before he hands the war off to his successor, Barack Obama, who has pledged to end it. The president wanted to highlight a drop in violence and to celebrate a recent U.S.-Iraq security agreement, which calls for U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011. "The war is not over," Bush said, but "it is decisively on its way to being won." Bush then traveled to Afghanistan where he spoke to U.S. soldiers and Marines at a hangar on the tarmac at Bagram Air Base. The rally for over a thousand military personnel took place in the dark, cold pre-dawn hours. Bush was greeted by loud cheers from the troops. "Afghanistan is a dramatically different country than it was eight years ago," he said. "We are making hopeful gains." But the president's message on progress in the region was having trouble competing with the videotaped image of the angry Iraqi who hurled his shoes at Bush in a near miss, shouting in Arabic, "This is your farewell kiss, you dog!" The reporter was later identified as Muntadar al-Zeidi, a correspondent for Al-Baghdadia television, an Iraqi owned station based in Cairo, Egypt. In Iraqi culture, throwing shoes at someone is a sign of contempt. Iraqis whacked a statue of Saddam with their shoes after U.S. Marines toppled it to the ground following the 2003 invasion. "I'm not insulted. I don't hold it against the government," Bush said later in an interview with ABC News. "The guy wanted to get on TV and he did. I don't know what his beef is, but whatever it is, I'm sure someone will hear it." Reaction in Iraq was swift but mixed, with some condemning the act and others applauding it. Television news stations throughout Iraq repeatedly showed footage of the incident, and newspapers carried headline stories. In Baghdad's Shiite slum of Sadr City, supporters of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called for protests against President Bush and demanded the release of the reporter, who was jailed after throwing his shoes. Thousands took to the streets Monday, chanting, "Bush, Bush, listen well, Two shoes on your head." Talking to a small group of reporters after the incident, Bush said, "I didn't know what the guy said, but I saw his sole." He told the reporters that "you were more concerned than I was. I was watching your faces." "I'm pretty good at ducking, as most of you know," Bush joked, adding quickly that "I'm talking about ducking your questions." On a more serious note, he said, "I mean, it was just a bizarre moment, but I've had other bizarre moments in the presidency. I remember when Hu Jintao was here. Remember? We had the big event? He's speaking, and all of a sudden I hear this noise had no earthly idea what was taking place, but it was the Falun Gong woman screaming at the top of her lungs (near the ceremony on the White House lawn). It was kind of an odd moment." The Iraqi government condemned the act and demanded an on-air apology from Al-Baghdadia television, the Iraqi-owned station that employs Muntadar al-Zeidi. The reporter was taken into custody and reportedly was being held for questioning by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's guards and is being tested for alcohol and drugs.
Other Arab journalists and commentators, fed up with U.S. policy in the Middle East and Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003 to topple Saddam, echoed al-Zeidi's sentiments Monday. Abdel-Bari Atwan, editor of the influential London-based newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi, wrote on the newspaper's Web site that the incident was "a proper goodbye for a war criminal." After word spread of the shoe attack, Afghan reporters had gathered at the presidential palace in Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, before a news conference by Bush and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Some of the reporters a collegial bunch that sees one another several times a week egged on one of their colleagues, jokingly trying to pressure the television reporter into taking off his shoe and hurling it once the U.S. president arrived. He did not. Karzai's deputy spokesman, Saimak Herwai, told Afghan reporters that they had to address Bush as "His Excellency," an honorary title not typically used with U.S. presidents. The request was followed by some, not by others. Bush then took a helicopter ride to Kabul to meet with Karzai. After their meeting, Bush said he told Karzai,"You can count on the United States. Just like you've been able to count on this administration, you'll be able to count on the next administration as well." The mixed reactions to Bush in both countries emphasized the uncertain situations Bush is leaving behind in the region.
In Iraq, nearly 150,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, protecting the fragile democracy. More than 4,209 members of the U.S. military have died and $576 billion has been spent since the war began five years and nine months ago. The Bush administration and even White House critics credit last year's military buildup with the security gains in Iraq. Last month, attacks fell to the lowest monthly level since the war began in 2003. In Afghanistan, there are about 31,000 U.S. troops and commanders have called for up to 20,000 more. The fight is especially difficult in southern Afghanistan, a stronghold of the Taliban where violence has risen sharply this year.