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Thousands of Iraqis took to the streets Monday to demand the release of a reporter who threw his shoes at President George W. Bush, as Arabs across many parts of the Middle East hailed the journalist as a hero and praised his insult as a proper send-off to the unpopular U.S. president.
The protests came as suicide bombers and gunmen targeted Iraqi police, U.S.-allied Sunni guards and civilians in a series of attacks Monday that killed at least 17 people and wounded more than a dozen others, officials said.
Journalist Muntadhar al-Zeidi, who was kidnapped by militants last year, was being held by Iraqi security Monday and interrogated about whether anybody paid him to throw his shoes at Bush during a press conference the previous day in Baghdad, said an Iraqi official.
He was also being tested for alcohol and drugs, and his shoes were being held as evidence, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Showing the sole of your shoe to someone in the Arab world is a sign of extreme disrespect, and throwing your shoes is even worse. Iraqis whacked a statue of Saddam with their shoes after U.S. Marines toppled it to the ground following the 2003 invasion.
Newspapers across the Arab world on Monday printed front-page photos of Bush ducking the flying shoes, and satellite TV stations repeatedly aired the incident, which provided fodder for jokes and was hailed by the president's many critics in the region.
"Iraq considers Sunday as the international day for shoes," said a joking text message circulating around the Saudi capital Riyadh.
Palestinian journalists in the West Bank town of Ramallah joked about who would be brave enough to toss their shoes at Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, another U.S. official widely disliked in the region.
Many users of the popular Internet networking site Facebook posted the video to their profile pages, showing al-Zeidi leap from his chair as Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki were about to shake hands Sunday and hurl his shoes at the president, who was about 20 feet away. Bush ducked the airborne footwear and was not injured in the incident.
"This is a farewell kiss, you dog," al-Zeidi yelled in Arabic as he threw his shoes. "This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq."
Al-Zeidi was immediately wrestled to the ground by Iraqi security guards. The incident raised fears of a security lapse in the heavily guarded Green Zone where the press conference took place. Reporters were repeatedly searched and asked to show identification before entering and while inside the compound, which houses al-Maliki's office and the U.S. Embassy.
Al-Zeidi's tirade was echoed by Arabs across the Middle East who are fed up with U.S. policy in the region and still angry over Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein.
The Arab response was ecstatic.
"Al-Zeidi is the man," said 42-year-old Jordanian businessman Samer Tabalat. "He did what Arab leaders failed to do."
Hoping to capitalize on this sentiment, al-Zeidi's TV station, Al-Baghdadia, repeatedly aired pleas to release the reporter Monday, while showing footage of explosions and playing background music that denounced the U.S. in Iraq.
"We have all been mobilized to work on releasing him, and all the organizations around the world are with us," said Abdel-Hameed al-Sayeh, the manager of Al-Baghdadia in Cairo, where the station is based.
Al-Jazeera television interviewed Saddam's former chief lawyer Khalil al-Dulaimi, who offered to defend al-Zeidi, calling him a "hero."
In Baghdad's Shiite slum of Sadr City, thousands of supporters of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr burned American flags to protest against Bush and called for the release of al-Zeidi.
"Bush, Bush, listen well: Two shoes on your head," the protesters chanted in unison.
In Najaf, a Shiite holy city, some protesters threw their shoes at an American patrol as it passed by. Witnesses said the American troops did not respond and continued on their patrol.
Al-Zeidi, who is in his late 20s, was kidnapped by Shiite militias on Nov. 16, 2007, and released three days later. His station said no ransom was paid and refused to discuss the case.
Violence in Iraq has declined significantly over the past year, but daily attacks continue. A truck bomb killed at least nine police officers Monday and wounded 13 others, including two civilians, in Khan Dhari, west of Baghdad, said Dr. Omar al-Rawi at the Fallujah hospital, where the dead and wounded were taken.
The U.S. military said eight Iraqi police officers were killed and 10 people were wounded in the blast. Conflicting casualty tolls are common in the chaotic aftermath of bombings in Iraq.
Hours earlier, a female suicide bomber knocked on the front door of the home of the leader of a local chapter of the Sunni volunteer militia north of Baghdad and blew herself up, killing him, said an Iraqi police official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.
Also Monday, gunmen killed seven people from a single family, members of the minority Yazidi sect, when they stormed into their home in northern Iraq, police said.
The U.S. military said in a statement Monday that a 25-year-old male detainee died of an apparent heart attack while in custody Sunday at a U.S. detention facility at Camp Cropper near the Baghdad airport.
The military did not release the name or nationality of the detainee, nor did it say why he was being held. An autopsy will be conducted before the body is released to family for burial, the military said.
Abdul-Zahra reported from Baghdad and Sinan from Cairo, Egypt. Associated Press writers Muhieddin Rashad and Chelsea J. Carter in Baghdad, Mohammed Daraghmeh and Diaa Hadid in Ramallah, West Bank, Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, and Donna Abu-Nasr in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, contributed to this report.