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Shoe-thrower's trial is delayed as big Iraqi changes move ahead

While a journalist's ire toward Bush made global news, tomorrow will see a major step.

BAGHDAD - A court yesterday postponed the trial of a journalist who hurled his shoes at President Bush in anger over the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, an act of protest that made him an international celebrity.

The court's decision to review the charges against Muntadhar al-Zeidi came as Iraq prepared after nearly six years to end America's costly grip over the country and give U.S. troops three years to pack up and leave.

Tomorrow will also see the official handover of the most potent symbol of U.S. occupation, when Iraq takes formal control of the heavily fortified Green Zone, which 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 changes sweeping over Iraq, yesterday's 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 Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, where the insurgency quickly took hold after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Zeidi's trial was to have begun today 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, said the trial was postponed pending an appellate court ruling on whether the charges should be reduced to simply insulting Bush.

A confession?

The Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at Bush during a Dec. 14 joint news conference with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Thousands demonstrated for Zeidi's release and hailed his gesture.

Two of Zeidi's lawyers said they hoped the reduced charges, which carry a maximum sentence of three years, would let him be released on bail. No date was set for the appellate court ruling.

The case transformed the little-known Zeidi, but it also embarrassed Maliki, who was standing next to Bush when the shoes were thrown.

Last week, Maliki sought to undermine Zeidi's popularity by saying he had confessed in a letter of apology that the mastermind of the attack was a militant known for slitting his victims' throats.

A new security pact

Neither Maliki nor any of his officials have provided a further explanation. The letter was not made public. Zeidi's family denied the claim and alleged that he was tortured into writing the letter.

Zeidi's act and the ensuing uproar over his custody and alleged abuse in detention come as Iraq prepares to end the occupation he was protesting. Starting tomorrow, 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 pact also requires that U.S. troops withdraw from Baghdad and other cities by the end of June and leave Iraq entirely by Jan. 1, 2012.

The changes are made easier by a sharp decline in violence around Iraq. The drop 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 Shiite extremists.

Although the years after the invasion were marked by daily acts of violence that killed thousands of Iraqis, the U.S. military said recently that attacks had fallen from 180 a day in 2007 to about 10 a day in 2008. They said the murder rate had declined to below prewar levels, about one per 100,000 people.

Also yesterday, the U.S. military said that control of about 20,000 mostly Sunni volunteers - many of them former insurgents - in four provinces, including the troubled Diyala region, where troops continue to fight al-Qaeda and other insurgents, would be handed over to the Iraqi government tomorrow.