BAGHDAD - On an Iraq trip shrouded in secrecy and marred by dissent, President Bush yesterday hailed progress in the war that defines his presidency and got a size-10 reminder of his unpopularity when a man hurled two shoes at him during a news conference.
"This is a farewell kiss, you dog!" the protester shouted in Arabic. He was identified as Muntadar al-Zeidi, a correspondent for Al-Baghdadia television, an Iraqi-owned station based in Cairo, Egypt.
Bush ducked both shoes as they whizzed past his head and landed with a thud against the wall behind him.
"It was a size 10," Bush joked later.
Bush visited the Iraqi capital just 37 days before he hands the war off to his successor, Barack Obama, who has pledged to end it. The president wanted to highlight a drop in violence in a nation still riven by ethnic strife and to celebrate a recent U.S.-Iraq security agreement, which calls for U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011.
"The war is not over," Bush said, adding that "it is decisively on it's way to being won."
In many ways, the unannounced trip was a victory lap without a clear victory.
Nearly 150,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq fighting a war that is intensely unpopular across the globe. More than 4,209 members of the U.S. military have died in the conflict, which has cost U.S. taxpayers $576 billion since it began in the spring of 2003.
Polls show that most Americans believe the U.S. erred in invading Iraq in 2003.
Bush ordered the nation into war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq while citing intelligence claiming that the Middle Eastern nation harbored weapons of mass destruction.
The weapons were never found, the intelligence was discredited, Bush's credibility with U.S. voters plummeted, and Saddam was captured and executed.
"There is still more work to be done," Bush said after his meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
It was at that point that the journalist stood and threw a shoe from about 20 feet away. Bush ducked, and it narrowly missed his head. The second shoe came quickly, and Bush ducked again while several Iraqis grabbed the man and dragged him to the floor.
In Iraqi culture, throwing shoes at someone is a sign of contempt. Iraqis whacked a statue of Saddam with their shoes after U.S. Marines toppled it to the ground following the 2003 invasion.
White House press secretary Dana Perino suffered an eye injury in the news conference melee. Bush brushed off the incident, comparing it to political protests at home.
"So what if I guy threw his shoe at me?" he asked.
Al-Maliki, who spoke before the incident, praised postwar progress: "Today, Iraq is moving forward in every field."
After the news conference, the president took a 15-minute helicopter ride through dark skies over Baghdad to Camp Victory. Telling hundreds of troops that he was "heading into retirement," Bush blamed Saddam for the 2003 invasion and said, "America is safer and more secure" than it was before the war.
For Bush, the war is the issue around which both he and the country defined his two terms in office. He saw the invasion and continuing fight as a necessary action to protect Americans and fight terrorism. Although his decision won support at first, the public now has largely decided that the U.S. needs to get out of Iraq.
Air Force One landed at Baghdad International Airport in the afternoon, local time, after a secretive Saturday night departure from Washington. After leaving Iraq, he went to Afghanistan today and and visited U.S. troops stationed there. *