WASHINGTON — Although the Secret Service put everyone who attended President George W. Bush's Baghdad news conference through several layers of security Sunday, the agency appeared to be caught off guard when an Iraqi journalist hurled his shoes at the president.
"We'll be our own harshest critic regarding this incident" Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan said Monday, "and we'll make any appropriate changes to security."
Donovan said, however, that agents on the scene knew that everyone in attendance had been screened for weapons and that they appeared to have taken the "appropriate level of action." No shots were fired as Bush's Secret Service detail joined Iraqi police in taking the shoe thrower into custody.
The arrested man, Muntathar al Zaidi, a 29-year-old employee of Cairo, Egypt-based Baghdadiya Television, remained in Iraqi custody Monday. Officials in Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's office refused to comment on his condition or on whether he'd be criminally charged.
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Throngs of Iraqi Shiite Muslims marched Monday in Sadr City, a sprawling Baghdad slum, hailing Zaidi as a hero and holding up shoes as they demanded his release.
The National Media Center, an arm of the Iraqi government that deals with the news media, condemned Zaidi's behavior as barbaric and harmful to "Iraqi journalists and journalism in general," demanding an apology from his employer.
Baghdadiya hasn't apologized, and it pressed for Zaidi's release.
The Iraqi Union of Journalists took a middle road, saying it was "astonished by this behavior" but urging Zaidi's release "for humanitarian reasons."
Video of the event at the prime minister's palace shows a tightly packed room in which most security personnel were forced to the sides, and 20 video cameras lined the back of the room. The cluster of cameras cut the room in half,
Iraqi reporters had waited inside the prime minister’s palace for about three hours for the ceremony to start. They hadn't been told that Bush would be in attendance, only that Maliki was giving a news conference they wouldn't want to miss.
About an hour before the news conference, a Secret Service agent arrived and gave waiting Iraqi journalists a fourth and final search.
The room was so crowded that Iraqi journalists added an extra chair in the front row, then crammed in two extra bodies. Two rows of dignitaries, including the U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. Ray Odierno, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, sat in chairs to the right of President Bush. There was no room for their security details, either.
No Secret Service agent was in view on the video when Zaidi threw the first shoe at Bush's head from about 20 feet away and shouted in Arabic: "This is a goodbye kiss, you dog."
Bush dodged the shoe, and Maliki, who was standing to Bush's left, tried to block Zaidi's second attempt, which also missed its target. A Secret Service agent appeared to move to Bush's side, but the president waved him off.
The video shows that another Iraqi journalist, not security agents, pulled Zaidi to the floor before Iraqi police and Secret Service agents piled on him and carried him from the room.
Ever since John W. Hinckley's failed attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981, the Secret Service began requiring journalists to undergo background checks, credentialing and screening with metal detectors.
Donovan said that everyone attending Sunday's event "was searched for weapons and passed through several layers of security'' before entering the room. He said that they also were subject to name checks, identification checks and verification that they represented their identified news employers.
"It's obvious that (Bush) could have been hit in the head with a shoe," he said. "Anytime there's an incident like this, we're going to review it. We're always trying to improve ourselves."
(Ashton, a staff writer for The Modesto (Calif.) Bee, reported from Baghdad.)
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