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Why Arabs love the shoe thrower

He’s considered to be a hero for expressing Arab contempt toward U.S.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT:  A sign of the times in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City in Baghdad; a Palestinian boy during a Gaza City demonstration calling for the release of shoe-throwing Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zeidi; an undated photo of al-Zeidi; Um Sa'aad, a sister of al-Zeidi, at a news conference in support of her brother.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: A sign of the times in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City in Baghdad; a Palestinian boy during a Gaza City demonstration calling for the release of shoe-throwing Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zeidi; an undated photo of al-Zeidi; Um Sa'aad, a sister of al-Zeidi, at a news conference in support of her brother.

BAGHDAD – Iraqis and other Arabs erupted in glee Monday at the shoe attack on George W. Bush.

Far from a joke, many in the Mideast saw the act by an Iraqi journalist as heroic, expressing the deep, personal contempt many feel for the American leader they blame for years of bloodshed, chaos and the suffering of civilians.

Images of Bush ducking the fast-flying shoes at a Baghdad press conference, aired repeatedly on Arab satellite TV networks, were cathartic for many in the Middle East, who have for years felt their own leaders kowtow to the American president.

So the sight of an average Arab standing up and making a public show of resentment was stunning. The pride, joy and bitterness it uncorked showed how many Arabs place their anger on Bush personally for what they see as a litany of crimes – chief among them the turmoil in Iraq and tens of thousands of Iraqi deaths since the 2003 U.S. invasion.

The reaction explains in part the relief among Arabs over Barack Obama’s election victory, seen as a repudiation of the Bush era.

But it also highlights the task the next president will face in repairing America’s image in the Mideast, where distrust of the U.S. has hampered a range of American policies, from containing Iran to pushing the peace process and democratic reform.

Some Iraqis were appalled by the act, including Iraqi Kurdish lawmaker Abdullah al-Alayawi, who called it “irresponsible conduct” and an affront to the Iraqi people. But such voices were drowned out by those who felt it was time someone stood up to the American president.

Bush “got what he deserves,” said a 52-year-old Jordanian contractor, Raed Mansi, in Amman.

Some regional TV channels aired the footage from Sunday’s press conference more than a dozen times in several hours. The scene bounced around Internet networking sites like You Tube and Facebook, showing Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zeidi standing, hurling both his shoes at Bush and shouting in Arabic, “This is a farewell kiss, you dog. This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq.”

Shoes hold a special place in the Arab lexicon of insults as a show of contempt – effectively saying, you’re lower than the dirt on my shoes. Even sitting with the sole of a shoe pointed at another person is seen as disrespectful.

In Baghdad’s Shiite slum of Sadr City, thousands of supporters of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr burned American flags in protest against Bush and called for the release of al-Zeidi, a 28-year-old Shiite who works for the private Iraqi TV station Al-Baghdadia.

What made al-Zeidi’s defiance particularly resonant for many was their anger at autocratic Arab leaders whom they have considered slavish followers of Bush’s policies in the Middle East.

Abdel-Sattar Qassem, a Palestinian political science professor at the West Bank’s An Najah University, wrote in an online commentary that “Bush wanted to end his bloody term hearing compliments and welcoming words from his collaborators in the Arab and Islamic world. But a shoe from a real Arab man summed up Bush’s black history and told the entire world that the Arabs hold their head high.”

The Iraq war is the most prominent cause of Arab resentment of Bush. Even many who were outraged at Shiite and Sunni militant groups for the killings of civilians and sectarian strife that tore the country apart ultimately blamed Bush for unleashing the chaos. Some accuse his administration of fueling Shiite-Sunni tensions across the region.

But more broadly, nearly every U.S. policy in the region became seen as part of a campaign to divide or subjugate Muslim nations, from Iran and Syria to Sudan and Somalia.

His administration’s war on terror was seen as a war on Muslims and Arabs in general, an image fueled by civilian deaths in Afghanistan and, in particular, the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

The intense personal resentment of Bush may give Obama an automatic advantage in his attempts to repair the U.S. image.

Obama’s race and his family ties to Islam have raised hope among some Arabs that he’ll be more sympathetic to their views. Obama’s aides have spoken of his delivering a major address in a Muslim capital early in his administration to set a new tone. But many in the Mideast say it will take more than symbolic gestures.

But on Monday, Arabs were just glowing with pride over the farewell to Bush.

“I’ve watched the video over a dozen times on You Tube and was excited every time I see him (al-Zeidi) standing up and calling Bush a dog,” said Tamer Ismail, 23-year-old art student in Cairo. “But I felt so bitter when he missed.”

Robert H. Reid, the AP’s Bureau Chief in Baghdad, has reported from Iraqi since 2003.

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