AFP - Iraq faced mounting calls on Monday to release the journalist who hurled his shoes at George W. Bush, an action branded shameful by the government but hailed by many in the Arab world as an ideal parting gift to the unpopular US president.
Colleagues of Muntazer al-Zaidi, who works for independent Iraqi television station Al-Baghdadia, said he "detested America" and had been plotting such an attack for months against the man who ordered the invasion of his country.
"Throwing the shoes at Bush was the best goodbye kiss ever... it expresses how Iraqis and other Arabs hate Bush," wrote Musa Barhoumeh, editor of Jordan's independent Al-Gahd Arabic newspaper.
Hundreds of Iraqis joined anti-US demonstrations to protest at Bush's farewell visit on Sunday to Iraq, which was plunged into a deadly insurgency and near civil war in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion.
The Iraqi government however branded Zaidi's actions as "shameful" and demanded an apology from his Cairo-based employer, which in turn was calling for his immediate release from custody.
Zaidi jumped up as Bush was holding a press conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Sunday, shouted "It is the farewell kiss, you dog" and threw two shoes at the US leader.
The shoes missed after Bush ducked and Zaidi was immediately wrestled to the ground by security guards and frogmarched from the room.
It is not known where Zaidi is currently being held.
"Al-Baghdadia television demands that the Iraqi authorities immediately release their stringer Muntazer al-Zaidi, in line with the democracy and freedom of expression that the American authorities promised the Iraqi people," it said in a statement.
"Any measures against Muntazer will be considered the acts of a dictatorial regime."
Saddam Hussein's former lawyer Khalil al-Dulaimi said he was forming a team to defend Zaidi and that around 200 lawyers, including Americans, had offered their services for free.
"It was the least thing for an Iraqi to do to Bush, the tyrant criminal who has killed two million people in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Dulaimi.
His colleagues in the Baghdad office of Al-Baghdadia said Zaidi had long been planning to throw shoes at Bush if ever he got the chance.
"Muntazer detested America. He detested the US soldiers, he detested Bush," said one on condition of anonymity.
Soles of shoes are considered the ultimate insult in Arab culture. After Saddam's statue was toppled in Baghdad in April 2003, many onlookers beat the statue's face with their soles.
During a demonstration in Sadr City, the bastion of radical anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, protestors threw shoes at passing US military vehicles, while in the holy Shiite city of Najaf, the crowds chanted "Down with America."
"All US soldiers who have used their shoes to humiliate Iraqis should be brought to justice, along with their US superiors, including Bush," said Ali Qeisi, head of a Jordan-based Iraqi rights group, calling for Zaidi's release.
"The flying shoe speaks more for Arab public opinion than all the despots/puppets that Bush meets with during his travels in the Middle East," said Asad Abu Khalil, a popular Lebanese-American blogger and professor at Stanislaus University in California at angryarab.blogspot.com
An Iraqi lawyer said Zaidi risked a miminum of two years in prison if he is prosecuted for insulting a visiting head of state, but could face a 15-year term if he is charged with attempted murder.
In Cairo, Muzhir al-Khafaji, programming director for the television channel, described Zaidi as a "proud Arab and an open-minded man," saying he had worked at Al-Baghdadia for three years.
"We fear for his safety," he told AFP, adding that Zaidi had been arrested twice before by the Americans and that there were fears that more of the station's 200 correspondents in Iraqi would be arrested.
"As far as I'm concerned, as he long as he hit him using a shoe it's perfect," said Cairo shoeshiner Ahmed Ali.