BAGHDAD — When Iraqi journalist Muntathar al Zaidi took the stand Thursday, he said that he hadn't planned to hurl his shoes at President George W. Bush, but the sight of the smirking leader at a Baghdad news conference got the best of him.
"He had an icy smile with no blood or spirit," said Zaidi, who was enclosed in a wooden pen. "At that moment, I only saw Bush, and the whole world turned black. I was feeling the blood of innocent people moving under his feet."
Zaidi's testimony Thursday marked the opening day of the high-profile trial. He's accused of assaulting a foreign head of state on an official visit when Bush made his widely televised farewell trip to Baghdad on Dec. 14. Conviction could lock up Zaidi for 15 years.
It was the first time that Zaidi had appeared in public since Iraqi security agents arrested him after he threw his shoes at Bush, narrowly missing him, and called him a dog, an insult in the Arab world.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Merced Sun-Star
Judge Abdul Ameer Hassan al Rubaie adjourned the trial until March 12 to ask the Cabinet whether Bush's presence qualified as an official visit.
Defense attorney Dhiyaa al Saadi had filed an earlier appeal seeking to drop the charges to "insulting a foreign leader," which would result in a prison term of two years and a fine, but the court denied the request. Saadi and Zaidi's family charge that the journalist has been beaten while in custody.
The trial is certain to spotlight the strength and independence of Iraq's public institutions — in this case, the judiciary — as the U.S.-led occupation cedes authority to Iraqis and Washington moves to withdraw its troops by the end of 2011.
The case is also likely to draw further attention because some Iraqis suspect that Zaidi may have been coerced or paid to throw the shoes.
Since the December news conference, many Iraqis have hailed Zaidi a hero. An artist built a monument in his honor and lawyers throughout the Arab world volunteered to represent him.
Others, however, think that the journalist insulted Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, because Bush was his guest. Maliki's office called the incident barbaric.
On Thursday, the crowd in the courtroom in Baghdad's Central Criminal Court swelled as more than 100 people showed up, including Zaidi's siblings, cousins and friends, who packed the first two rows. Some lawyers from Zaidi's 25-member defense team huddled at his side.
Iraqi politicians and Western and Iraqi reporters, as well as a couple of observers from the U.S. Embassy, also helped fill the room.
When guards escorted Zaidi into the courtroom, his brother Dhergham jumped to his feet and applauded. Zaidi's other siblings and their supporters began chanting, "May God be with you!"
Rubaie silenced the commotion and threatened to evict any disruptive audience members.
Zaidi's family members, most of whom haven't seen him since his arrest, said he looked healthy, especially so because they believe that he's been beaten while in custody. They cited a chipped tooth as evidence.
Through the day's hearing, Zaidi was held in a pen that came up to his chin. He wore an olive-green coat and an Iraqi flag over his shoulders, which Dhergham passed to him. His footwear: brown loafers, not the famous heavy-soled shoes he'd chucked at Bush. Iraqi security agents destroyed that pair while checking them for explosive materials.
Two guards flanked Zaidi, and others stood nearby.
When it was Zaidi's turn to speak, he recalled the day with clarity, speaking for about 90 minutes. He said that Bush wasn't an Iraqi guest when the U.S. commander in chief boasted of his administration's accomplishments.
"I don't know what kind of achievements he was talking about," Zaidi said. "I just saw seas of Iraqi blood."
Zaidi referred to the tens of thousands of Iraqis who've died or been displaced since U.S.-led troops toppled despot Saddam Hussein in 2003. The occupation unleashed five years of sectarian clashes and insurgent attacks.
At the news conference, Bush also mentioned his dinner plans with Maliki, Zaidi said.
"I wanted to express my feelings on behalf of the Iraqi people from the very north to the very south," Zaidi said.
Rubaie said he'd viewed a video in which Zaidi said he planned to insult Bush at a news conference in Amman, Jordan, two years ago. Zaidi didn't deny he said that, but he added that the tape was irrelevant because he didn't go to the Jordanian capital.
When the judge postponed the trial, Zaidi's sisters rushed to the pen to kiss and visit him, sobbing and wiping their eyes. Security guards ordered them and others out of the courtroom.
Family members feared that Zaidi would be beaten if he were returned to the detention center in the Green Zone, the heavily guarded compound where the U.S. Embassy, the Iraqi parliament and other government offices are based. His attorneys said they'd consider filing a request to transfer him to a safer location.
"It is possible he will be tortured for what he said in court," defense attorney Yihya al Attabi said.
If some family members worried for Zaidi, but others were more hopeful.
Said sister Um Dali al Zaidi, 25: "We feel the session was good, and we trust the Iraqi judiciary."
(Daniel is a staff writer for The Miami Herald. McClatchy special correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed to this report.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY: