IT is a farewell tour that President George W. Bush will find difficult to forget. Bush had decided to make unannounced visits to Iraq and Afghanistan, countries that he has left in a shambles, in mid-December, just weeks before he demits office. The visit to Iraq was announced hours before he landed in Baghdad. He used the occasion to sign the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which many people fear will formalise the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq and is unpopular in the Arab world.
Bushs carefully choreographed trip took a wrong turn at the joint press conference that he addressed with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. An Iraqi journalist, Muntadar al-Zaidi, who has now become a household name in the Arab world, threw his pair of shoes in quick succession at the American President, who was patting himself on the back for a job well done in Iraq.
While throwing his first shoe, al-Zaidi shouted that it was a gift from the Iraqis; this is the farewell kiss, you dog. The second shoe, he yelled, is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq. Hitting a person with footwear is the ultimate insult in most cultures. And the dog, along with the pig, is the most reviled creature in Islamic culture.
Bush tried to laugh off the incident, but as an American commentator observed tongue-in-cheek, it resulted in sock and awe around the world. An Iraqi commentator described the shoes hurled at Bush as Iraqs weapon of comprehensive destruction.
As the Western media tried initially to downplay what is being described as the event of the year, spontaneous scenes of crowds erupting with joy on Arab streets from Casablanca to Cairo were captured live on television. In Sadr City, a Baghdad suburb, people started putting their footwear on poles and waving them in defiance. In Najaf, people started throwing shoes at passing U.S. military convoys. Both these places have witnessed a lot of bloodshed, mainly as a result of the wanton use of American airpower. Al-Zaidi himself had covered the recent bloody siege of Sadr City, where helicopter gunships targeted heavily populated areas.
Maliki had opened the press conference by heaping fulsome praise on the U.S. President, describing him as a friend who had helped Iraqis get rid of the dictatorship and fight terrorism. Bush responded by saying that the American people had sacrificed a great amount of time and resources for the battle in Iraq. It was when he emphasised that the war was decisively on the way to being won that al-Zaidi hurled his shoes at the American President. Bush, it should not be forgotten, prematurely announced victory in Iraq in the notorious mission accomplished speech a few months after the March 2003 invasion.
Al-Zaidi was beaten badly by the security personnel present at the press conference. Since then, he has been held virtually incommunicado by the Iraqi Interior Ministry. In their Friday prayers, Shia and Sunni preachers in all of Iraqs mosques demanded the immediate release of al-Zaidi, who has become the new icon of the Arab world. Leading Friday prayers in Teheran, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, told worshippers not to forget the shoe intifada [rebellion] in Iraq and that that pair of shoes deserved a prominent place in Iraqs national museum.
A Saudi-based businessman bid more than a million dollars for the pair of shoes that narrowly missed its target. Meanwhile, the Iraqi authorities have announced that they have destroyed what was probably, for a short period, the most famous pair of shoes in contemporary history.
The reasons for the intense support for al-Zaidi is that the people of Iraq have been experiencing the grim realities of life after the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of their country in 2003. Iraqs physical infrastructure, destroyed by the invasion, continues to be in disrepair despite the Bush administrations claims that $69 billion has been invested in Iraq. At least 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died owing to the occupation. Two million Iraqis have been forced to flee the country and live in squalid refugee camps. The number of internally displaced persons is said to be even larger.
Bushs divide-and-rule policy has put Iraqs future as a united nation in peril. The Kurdish-dominated north seems determined to chart a course of its own. As of now, the central government in Baghdad has very little control over the Kurds. The Arab population is slowly but surely being ethnically cleansed. Iraqi Kurds are doing security and business deals independent of the central government. They have even refused to share oil revenues with the government.
Another development is the arming of the Sahwa, the Sunni Awakening Group, by the Americans. Previously, the group, comprising former Baathists and Islamists, was fighting against the occupation and its Shia rivals. It was responsible for much of the urban warfare and bomb explosions in Iraq. Its falling out with Al Qaeda elements and its eventual embrace of the Americans has been a major contributing factor in the limited success of the American military surge in Iraq. But the fear among Iraqis is that if and when the Americans leave Iraq, the Sahwa, now highly trained and armed with sophisticated weapons, will turn their guns on the Shia-dominated government.
The U.S. military has exacerbated the political fault lines by helping some Shia factions gain the upper hand. The U.S. forces also played a big role in the ouster of the Mahdi forces, which owe allegiance to the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, from his strongholds in Basra and Sadr City. Al-Sadr has opposed the American military presence in Iraq from the very outset. Though sidelined for the time being, he will remain a powerful force in Iraqi politics as he represents marginalised Shias and the poor.
In Afghanistan, where the so-called good war against terror is being fought, the Taliban is on the comeback trail. The ongoing massacre of civilians, now in its seventh year, has helped revive the Taliban. Tonnes of bombs have been dropped on civilian areas in pursuit of elusive Taliban forces. The killing of thousands of civilians and the massive collateral damage due to the bombings have made the Afghan people view the war as an act of imperial aggression.
The country has descended into utter chaos. Average life expectancy has gone down, malnutrition has risen, the literacy level has dropped further, and most of the population lives below the poverty line. As much as 90 per cent of the worlds opium is now produced in Afghanistan.
Just before Bush departed on his visit to Baghdad and Kabul, a U.S. Senate Report accused his administration of ordering the torture and abuse of detainees, many of them Iraqis and Afghans. The report noted that it was the signing of an executive order by Bush on February 7, 2002, exempting captives in the war on terror from the protection of Geneva Conventions that led to the widespread torture of these civilians.
Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay prisons were some of the preferred locations where thousands of suspects were routinely tortured. Prominent Americans from different walks of life are now calling for the trial of Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney for war crimes.
Small groups of demonstrators in the U.S. have been throwing shoes in the air near the White House in solidarity with al-Zaidi. Britains Stop the War coalition brandished boots outside the U.S. embassy in London and said that al-Zaidis action expressed the unreported feelings of millions in Iraq and beyond that the Bush occupation has been a disaster.
There have been copycat protests even in India. In Hyderabad, a Boot-out Bush rally in solidarity with al-Zaidi was held by citizens cutting across party lines. Only the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party did not participate in it. It is well known that their leaderships hold Bush in high regard. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on his last visit to the White House showered lavish praise on Bush and said that the Indian people loved him deeply.