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Iraqi shoe-thrower launches Geneva-based agency

(Keystone)

The Iraqi journalist who pitched his shoes at former United States President George W. Bush is in Geneva setting up a foundation to help Iraqi war victims.

Munthader al-Zaidi, a television reporter, shot to fame on December 14, 2008 when he hurled his two shoes at Bush at a Baghdad news conference, shouting: "This is your farewell kiss, you dog!"

"From Geneva, the capital of humanitarian institutions, I am launching an appeal on behalf of my people," Zaidi told journalists in Geneva on Monday.

He aims to build orphanages, a children's hospital, and medical and orthopaedic centres offering free treatment and manned by Iraqi doctors and medical staff.

He also wants to set up income-generating schemes for widows to help them get back on their feet. The foundation carries his last name.

Zaidi arrived in Switzerland on October 13 on a three-month tourist visa, accompanied by his brother. He was released on September 15 after spending nine months in an Iraqi prison.

"He hopes to surf on the wave of support he has gained to do some good," explained Mauro Poggia, his Swiss lawyer, who organised the visit.

Zaidi added that he hoped to see justice and compensation for what he said were crimes committed against the Iraqi people during the US-led war.

"Switzerland is a neutral country with a tradition of helping war-torn nations," he told reporters.

Being in Geneva will allow him to travel to other European countries to present his plans and raise money, he explained.

The 30-year-old said he has received numerous offers of support but had decided not to accept anything until he had created the agency.

Tortured

The Iraqi journalist is also in Switzerland to recover and seek treatment from his time in an Iraqi jail. He served nine months of a three-year sentence for assaulting a foreign dignitary.

Upon release last month, he gave a detailed account of being tortured by government officials after his arrest. He was beaten with electric cables and iron bars and immersed in cold water, he said.

"I suffered a great deal," he told swissinfo.ch. "I still have problems with my teeth, back and other parts of my body where I was tortured."

Fearing for his future, Zaidi left Baghdad for Beirut. "I am still afraid for my family and of acts of revenge against them," he added.

Millions of people across the world saw footage of Zaidi throwing his footwear at Bush and calling him a "dog". Each is a grave insult in the Middle East.

He offered an explanation for his protest: "I did this to send a message to the entire world [about] what was happening in Iraq."

On the day of his release, Zaidi told reporters that he was "not a hero".

"War criminal Bush"

"But when I saw the war criminal Bush, I wanted to show my resentment – after six years' of occupation, this killer came to my country smiling and bragging about victory," he said. He was feted both before and after his release.

"There is talk of job offers from bigger Arab networks, lavish gifts such as sports cars from businessmen, a celebrity status, and reports that Arab women from Baghdad to the Gaza Strip want his hand in marriage," Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based news channel, has reported.

But not all Iraqis admire Zaidi's rebellious act; some thought his gesture was rude and unjustified.

"He should have spent more time in jail to learn how to respect guests," shop owner Hussein Oreibi told the USA Today newspaper.

Bush played down the Baghdad "shoe-ing", saying it was an act of protest that would not have been possible under Saddam Hussein's regime. Yet it was a point of embarrassment for the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

It has since become a global phenomenon, described as the "ultimate non-violent weapon".

Zaidi has sparked numerous copy-cat incidents around the world, including a sports shoe hurled at Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao during to a visit to Britain's Cambridge University in February 2009.

Simon Bradley in Geneva, swissinfo.ch

Baghdad shoe-thrower

Munthader al-Zaidi is an Iraqi broadcast journalist working for Al-Baghdadiya television. His reports often focus on the plight of widows, orphans and children in the Iraq conflict.

On December 14, 2008 he threw both of his size ten shoes at former US President George W. Bush during a news conference in Baghdad to protest the US presence in Iraq.

He was sentenced to three years for assaulting a foreign head of state but had his sentence reduced to one year due to a lack of a prior record and good behaviour.

He was released on September 15, 2009 after serving nine months of the sentence.

He accused Iraqi government and security personnel of beating, whipping and electrocuting him during the first few days of his incarceration.

He received a hero's welcome by many in the Arab world.

According to Arab tradition, throwing shoes and calling the intended target a dog was a double insult.

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