BAGHDAD – An Iraqi court on Tuesday postponed the trial of a journalist who hurled his shoes at President George W. Bush in anger over America's invasion and occupation of his country, an act of protest that made him an international celebrity.
The shoe throwing and the ensuing uproar over the journalist's arrest and alleged abuse in detention comes as Iraq is preparing to end the occupation he was protesting. On Thursday, the new U.S.-Iraq security pact — which gives American troops three years to pack up and leave — will take effect.
New Year's Day will also see the official handover of the most potent symbol of U.S. occupation, when Iraq takes formal control of the Green Zone — a heavily fortified enclave surrounded by cement walls that extends over four square miles of downtown Baghdad and encompasses the U.S. Embassy and the seat of the Iraqi government.
But in the most telling sign of the sea changes that are sweeping over Iraq, the second anniversary of Saddam Hussein's hanging went by almost unnoticed — a near-forgotten footnote in a war that has claimed the lives of more than 4,200 Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis.
The anniversary was not even marked in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, where the insurgency quickly took hold after the 2003 invasion.
The trial of Muntadhar al-Zeidi was to begin Wednesday on charges of assaulting a foreign leader, which his defense team said carried a maximum sentence of 15 years. But a spokesman for Iraq's Higher Judicial Council, Abdul-Sattar Bayrkdar, told The Associated Press it was postponed pending an appellate court ruling on whether the charges should be reduced to simply insulting Bush.
Two of his lawyers said they hoped the reduced charges, which carry a maximum sentence of three years, would allow al-Zeidi to be released on bail. No date was set for the appellate court ruling.
"There is a difference between assault and insult; al-Zeidi wanted to express his objection to the occupation. So the case is within the context of an insult and not an intention to kill," his lawyer Diaa al-Saadi told the AP.
Al-Zeidi threw his shoes at Bush during a Dec. 14 news conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Thousands demonstrated for his release across the Middle East.
The case transformed al-Zeidi from a little-known television journalist into an international folk hero for defying the U.S. leader, but it also embarrassed al-Maliki who was standing next to Bush when the shoes were thrown.
Last week, the Iraqi leader sought to undermine the journalist's popularity by saying the he had confessed that the mastermind of the attack was a militant known for slitting his victims' throats.
Al-Maliki said that in a letter of apology to him al-Zeidi wrote that a known militant had induced him to throw the shoes. The alleged instigator has never been identified and neither al-Maliki nor any of his officials have provided further explanation. The letter was never made public.
The journalist's family denied the claim and alleged that al-Zeidi was tortured into writing the letter.
His trial was to have started a day before the 146,000 U.S. forces in Iraq will be operating under a new security agreement that gives Iraqi authorities a role in approving and overseeing American military operations.
The new pact also requires that U.S. troops withdraw from Baghdad and other cities by the end of June and leave the country entirely by Jan. 1, 2012.
The changes are made more easy by the sharp decline in violence around Iraq. The decline is mostly attributed to an inflow of thousands of U.S. troops into Iraq two years ago, a decision by mostly Sunni tribesmen to switch allegiances away from Al Qaeda in Iraq and a campaign to dampen militant Shiite extremists.
Although the years following the 2003 invasion were marked by daily acts of violence that killed thousands of Iraqis, the U.S. military said recently that attacks have dropped from 180 a day last year to about 10 a day this year. The military says the murder rate also has declined to below pre-war levels, about one per 100,000 people.
Also Tuesday, the U.S. military said control of about 20,000 mostly Sunni volunteers — many of them ex-insurgents — in four provinces, including the troubled Diyala region, will be handed over to the Iraqi government on Thursday.
About 100,000 joined forces with the U.S. two years ago — perhaps the most significant factor in turning the tide against Al Qaeda in Iraq.
The U.S. military managed and paid the volunteers, but began handing over control of the groups to the Iraqi government in October. The Iraqi government has promised to absorb 20 percent of the volunteers into its security forces and pay the rest until it can find them civilian jobs.