President Bush Wraps Up Farewell War Zone Tour

Bush defends Iraq War, brushes off shoe throwing incident during Mideast tour.

December 15, 2008, 8:35 AM

Dec. 15, 2008— -- President Bush made his final swing as president through two war zones Monday, visiting with troops that he sent to Iraq and Afghanistan and will soon turn over to a new commander in chief.

Surely the most unexpected point in the carefully scripted, two-day presidential trip came when a reporter threw his shoes at the president during a press conference in Baghdad, both of which Bush artfully dodged from behind the podium.

"This is your farewell kiss, you dog!" the reporter shouted in Arabic while hurling one shoe, and then the other. 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 Hussein with their shoes after U.S. Marines toppled it to the ground following the 2003 invasion.

It was a moment Bush described as "bizarre."

"I'm not insulted. I don't hold it against the government," Bush told ABC News in an exclusive interview. "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."

The reporter could be heard wailing and crying as security dragged him away from the press conference. At first, others at the press conference were unsure as to what was being tossed -- one reporter thought it was a grenade as it sailed by her head.

Later, the president tried to put a funny spin on the event.

"Anyone got any shoe jokes? I am going to need them!" he said on Air Force One as he left Iraq.

He had one for himself.

"I didn't know what the guy said, but I saw his sole," he joked to reporters.

Despite his jokes, the president appeared irritated after the event, perhaps knowing the incident would dominate headlines rather than his message to the troops.

Reaction in Iraq was swift but mixed, with some condemning the act and others applauding it. Television news stations throughout the country repeatedly showed footage of the incident, and newspapers carried headline stories.

Bush: War 'On Its Way to Being Won'

The goal of the trip for the president was to highlight a drop in violence and to celebrate a recent U.S.-Iraq security agreement, which called 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 more than 1,000 military personnel took place in the dark, cold predawn hours, and 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."

"What you're doing in Afghanistan is important. It is courageous, and it is selfless. It's akin to what American troops did in places like Normandy and Iwo Jima and Korea. Your generation is every bit as great as any that has come before. And the work you do every day is shaping history for generations to come," Bush said.

After the remarks at Bagram Air Base, the president traveled to the capital of Kabul in a fleet of Blackhawk helicopters to meet with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai. The two leaders met out of view and participated in a brief military review.

The shoe throwing incident in Iraq continued to generate headlines in the Middle East even after the president had left the country for Afghanistan.

The Iraqi government condemned the act and demanded an on-air apology from Al-Baghdadia television. Zeidi was taken into custody and was reportedly was being held for questioning by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's guards and is being tested for alcohol and drugs.

Al-Baghdadia Satellite channel issued a statement Monday demanding that Iraqi authorities release its employee "according to democracy and free speech Iraqis were promise by the new government and the American administration."

Some other Arab journalists and commentators echoed 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 shoe throwing incident was "a proper goodbye for a war criminal."

As word of the shoe attack spread, Afghan reporters gathered at the presidential palace in Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, before a news conference by Bush and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, good naturedly joked about the incident. Several of the reporters -- a collegial bunch that sees one another several times a week -- jokingly tried to pressure one colleague into taking off his shoe and hurling it at Bush. He did not.

While Bush swiftly dodged the shoes, press secretary Dana Perino took some physical bruising from the incident.

During the interview with ABC News, Perino sat with an ice pack on her right eye where a boom microphone had hit her during the brief melee.

Perino said the hit, which left her with a black eye, hurt so badly when it struck that she had to hold back tears as the press conference continued.

She said Bush told her jokingly he thought she was about to cry because someone threw shoes at him. The president appeared obviously concerned about the hit Perino took.

The Cost of the War

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 Taliban stronghold where violence has risen sharply this year.

ABC's Richard Coolidge and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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