Iraqi who threw shoes at Bush freed, welcomed as hero

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 15, 2009 

Iraq Shoe Thrower

In this Dec. 14, 2008, image, Iraqi reporter Muntadhar al-Zaidi throws a shoe at President George W. Bush during a news conference with Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Malik in Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/APTN, File)

AP

BAGHDAD, Iraq — The Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at then-President George W. Bush last year was freed from prison Tuesday, expressing no remorse for hurling what he called a "flower to the occupier."

Muntathar al Zaidi received a hero's welcome at the offices of his employer, al Baghdadiya television station, where his colleagues slaughtered sheep and danced in celebration of his release. Zaidi, 30, originally received a three-year prison term for assaulting a head of state, but the sentence was reduced and he was freed early because he had no criminal record.

Also on Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Baghdad on a previously unannounced visit to meet with senior U.S. and Iraqi officials at a time when Afghanistan has overshadowed Iraq as a foreign policy priority. Shortly after news of Biden's visit broke, four mortar rounds landed near the fortress-like compound known as the Green Zone, home to the American and Iraqi commands.

Reporters who accompanied Biden said the "take cover" signal sounded at least twice. An Iraqi police official, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because he isn't authorized to talk to journalists, said the mortar barrage fell short of the Green Zone, killing two Iraqis and wounding five, all civilians.

A few hours before Biden's arrival, Zaidi told a news conference that Iraqi guards had tortured him with whippings and electric shocks during his nine-month detention. He was missing at least one front tooth. Sporting a dark suit and a scarf printed with the Iraqi flag, Zaidi looked paler and thinner than he did the day he was arrested.

The focus of Zaidi's speech Tuesday wasn't his own ordeal, however, but the death and destruction that Iraqis have experienced since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.

"After six years of humiliation, of indignity, of killing and violations of sanctity and desecrations of houses of worship, the killer comes, boasting and bragging about victory and democracy. He came to say goodbye to his victims and wanted flowers in response," Zaidi said. "Put simply, that was my flower to the occupier, and to all those who are in league with him."

Zaidi said the years of witnessing war's brutalities as a journalist built up inside him and exploded last Dec. 14, when Bush gave a farewell news conference alongside Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki in Baghdad. Zaidi interrupted Bush's remarks by throwing his shoes at the president, shouting the words that earned him admiration and notoriety around the globe: "This is a farewell kiss, you dog. This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq."

Bush ducked the flying shoes, and the episode quickly went viral via YouTube, spawning online shoe-throwing games, parodies, folk songs and poetry. A wealthy Saudi reportedly offered millions for the shoes, Arab women have written love letters to Zaidi and a statue of a giant shoe was erected in Saddam Hussein's hometown before the Iraqi government ordered it removed.

Iraqi government spokesmen weren't available for comment Tuesday.

Zaidi's relatives said he was feeling ill after the news conference and was placed under a doctor's supervision for 24 hours. His cousin Haider Abdel Rasoul al Zaidi, who's spoken for the family in the past week, said Zaidi was scheduled to leave Iraq on Wednesday for Greece, where he was expected to undergo further medical tests.

Zaidi's future in Iraq is unclear. His family has said it would be extremely difficult for him to remain in journalism because of the publicity and hostility from the Iraqi government. Zaidi said in his remarks Tuesday that he hoped to work in civil society, especially on issues related to Iraq's widows and orphans. A Shiite Muslim, Zaidi pledged to remain independent and steer clear of politics.

"I didn't do this so my name would enter history, or for material gains," Zaidi said. "All I wanted was to defend my country, and that's a legitimate cause."

(McClatchy special correspondent Sahar Issa contributed to this article.)

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