BAGHDAD – A court Tuesday postponed the trial of a journalist who hurled his shoes at President George W. 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 comes as Iraq prepares 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.
Thursday will also see the official handover of the most potent symbol of U.S. occupation, when Iraq takes formal control of the Green Zone — a heavily fortified enclave surrounded by cement walls that extends over 4 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 that are sweeping over Iraq, Tuesday'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 Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, where the insurgency quickly took hold after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
The trial of al-Zeidi was to begin Wednesday 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, told The Associated Press it was postponed pending an appellate court ruling on whether the charges should be reduced to simply insulting Bush.
The Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at Bush during a Dec. 14 joint news conference with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Thousands demonstrated for al-Zeidi's release and hailed his gesture.
Two of al-Zeidi's lawyers said they hoped the reduced charges, which carry a maximum sentence of three years, would allow al-Zeidi to be released on bail. No date was set for the appellate court ruling.
"There is a difference between assault and insult; al-Zeidi wanted to express his objection to the occupation. So the case is within the context of an insult and not an intention to kill," his lawyer Diaa al-Saadi told the AP.
First lady Laura Bush said Sunday that she thinks people should view the incident as an "assault."
The case transformed al-Zeidi from a little-known TV journalist into an international celebrity for defying Bush, but it also embarrassed al-Maliki who was standing next to the president when the shoes were thrown.
Last week, al-Maliki sought to undermine the journalist's popularity by saying he had confessed that the mastermind of the attack was a militant known for slitting his victims' throats.
Al-Maliki said that in a letter of apology to him, al-Zeidi wrote that a known militant had induced him to throw the shoes. The alleged instigator has never been identified and neither al-Maliki nor any of his officials have provided a further explanation. The letter was not made public.
The journalist's family denied the claim and alleged that al-Zeidi was tortured into writing the letter.
His act and the ensuing uproar over his custody and alleged abuse in detention come at a time when Iraq is preparing to end the occupation he was protesting. Starting Thursday, 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 new pact also requires that U.S. troops withdraw from Baghdad and other cities by the end of June and leave the country entirely by Jan. 1, 2012.
The changes are made more easy by the 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-Qaida in Iraq and a campaign to dampen militant Shiite extremists.
Although the years following the invasion were marked by daily acts of violence that killed untold thousands of Iraqis, the U.S. military said recently that attacks have dropped from 180 a day in 2007 to about 10 a day in 2008. They have said the murder rate had declined to below prewar levels, about one per 100,000 people.
Also Tuesday, the U.S. military said 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-Qaida and other insurgents, would be handed over to the Iraqi government on Thursday.
About 100,000 joined forces with the U.S. two years ago and were perhaps the most significant factor in turning the tide against al-Qaida in Iraq.
The U.S. military managed and paid the volunteers, but began handing over control of the groups to the Iraqi government in October. The Iraqi government has promised to absorb 20 percent of the volunteers into its security forces and pay the rest until it can find them civilian jobs.
The groups have been a key factor in helping reduce violence in the past two years, but the movement has been slower to take hold in Diyala, an ethnically and religiously diverse province where the insurgency remains entrenched despite recent setbacks. There are fears the movement could also turn against the government if they are not satisfied.
"That's where we have had some tension, more tension than other places, between the Sons of Iraq and U.S. forces," Gen. Ray Odierno told AP recently. "We're monitoring and watching very closely."
Odierno said ultimately the success of the transition will depend on the Iraq government finding "honorable employment" for the Sunni volunteers.