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Iraq salutes its new hero

The reporter who threw his shoes at Bush hates the U.S. presence and Iran influence on his country, his kin said.

BAGHDAD - The Iraqi TV reporter who hurled his shoes at President Bush was kidnapped once by militants and, separately, detained briefly by the U.S. military.

Over time, Muntadhar al-Zeidi, a 28-year-old unmarried Shiite, came to hate both the U.S. military occupation and Iran's interference in Iraq, his family said.

Zeidi's act of defiance Sunday transformed an obscure reporter from a minor TV station into a hero to many Iraqis fed up with the nearly six-year U.S. presence here, but also fearful that their country will fall under Iran's influence once the Americans leave.

Several thousand people demonstrated in Baghdad and other cities to demand Zeidi's release. The attack was the talk of the town in coffeeshops, business offices and even schools - and a subject across much of the Arab world.

In Saudi Arabia, a newspaper reported that a man had offered $10 million to buy just one of what has almost certainly become the world's most famous pair of shoes. In the Baghdad area of Sadr City, people calling for an immediate U.S. withdrawal removed their shoes and waved them in the air on poles.

And a charity run by the daughter of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi bestowed a medal of courage on Zeidi, calling on the Iraqi government to free him.

Throwing a shoe at someone is considered one of the worst insults in Iraq. Zeidi also called Bush "a dog."

Zeidi was held yesterday in Iraqi custody for investigation and could face charges of insulting a foreign leader and the Iraqi prime minister, who was standing next to Bush. Conviction carries a sentence of up to two years in prison or a small fine.

Bush was not hit or injured, and Iraqi security guards wrestled Zeidi to the ground after he tossed his shoes.

But questions arose about the protection of the president and why the Secret Service seemed caught off-guard.

The Secret Service yesterday defended its response. Those at the news conference at the prime minister's palace were screened with magnetometers and given additional pat-downs to ensure no weapons were brought into the room, spokesman Eric Zahren said. U.S. officials also conducted background and identity checks on all participants ahead of time.

"This was a room full of cleared and screened press," Zahren said. "We wouldn't expect this type of behavior out of our press corps, but within the security structure, people can still misbehave."

Arab satellite-TV networks repeatedly broadcast images of Bush ducking the shoes at the Baghdad news conference. The sight of an average Arab standing up and making a public show of resentment was striking - especially against a leader widely blamed for a litany of crimes including the turmoil in Iraq, where tens of thousands of civilians have died in the war.

A geography teacher at a Baghdad elementary school asked her students if they had seen the footage of the shoe-throwing. "All Iraqis should be proud of this Iraqi brave man, Muntadhar," she said. "History will remember him forever."

Family members expressed bewilderment over Zeidi's action and concern about his treatment in Iraqi custody. But they also expressed pride over his defiance of an American president who many Iraqis believe has destroyed their country.

"I swear to Allah, he is a hero," said his sister, who goes by the nickname Umm Firas.

The family insisted that Zeidi's action was spontaneous - perhaps motivated by the political turmoil that their brother had reported on, plus his personal brushes with violence and the threat of death that Iraqis face daily.

As a journalist, Zeidi was once seized by gunmen while on an assignment in a Sunni district of northern Baghdad. He was freed unharmed three days later. In January, he was seized again, arrested by U.S. soldiers who searched his apartment building and released him the next day with an apology, said his brother, Dhirgham.

Those experiences helped mold a deep resentment.

"He hates the American physical occupation as much as he hates the Iranian moral occupation," Dhirgham said, alluding to the influence of pro-Iranian Shiite clerics on political and social life. "As for Iran, he considers the regime to be the other side of the American coin."

Three Attacks Leave At Least 17 Dead

Suicide bombers

and gunmen targeted Iraqi police, U.S.-allied Sunni guards and civilians in

a series of attacks yesterday that killed at least 17 people.

A truck bomb

killed at least nine police officers and wounded 13 others in Khan Dhari west of Baghdad, said Dr. Omar al-Rawi at the Fallujah hospital, where the victims were taken.

Hours earlier,

a female suicide bomber knocked on the door

of a Sunni volunteer militia leader north of Baghdad and blew herself up, killing him, police said.

In northern Iraq,

seven people

in one family were killed when gunmen stormed into their home. The family was part of the minority Yazidi sect.

- Associated Press