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, declaring: "This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq."
The president 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.
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.
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.
"It harmed the reputation of Iraqi journalists and Iraqi journalism in general," according to a statement released by the government.
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.
It was Bush’s last trip to the war zones before Obama takes office Jan. 20. Obama, a Democrat, has promised he will bring all U.S. combat troops back home from Iraq a little over a year into his term, as long as commanders agree a withdrawal would not endanger American personnel or Iraq’s security. Obama has said the drawdown in Iraq would allow him to shift troops and bolster the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
It’s unclear what will happen in Iraq when the U.S. troops leave. While violence has slowed in Iraq, attacks continue, especially in the north.
Bush was traveling back to Washington in the early hours Monday.
After the shoe-throwing incident, White House press secretary Dana Perino suffered an eye injury when she was hit in the face with a microphone during the melee.
Bush, who has grown used to protests of his Iraq policy, brushed off the incident. He said, "So what if a guy threw his shoe at me?"
Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul Zahra in Baghdad contributed to this report.