The Iraqi reporter who threw his shoes at former President George W. Bush in protest was freed from prison on Tuesday and, unrepentant, he harshly condemned the U.S. presence in his country and accused authorities of torturing him.
Muntadhar al-Zeidi's stunning act of protest in December made him a hero for many in and outside Iraq. It struck a chord with millions in the Arab and Muslim worlds who have been captivated and angered by daily images of destruction and grieving since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
On his first day of freedom after nine months in jail, he told NBC News that he had no regrets. “I wouldn't hesitate to do what I've done, even if it means (somebody) killing me,” he said.
But nine months later, there was little public outpouring of support for him, a sign of how things have changed.
Since the incident, U.S. forces have pulled back from Iraq's cities, significantly lowering the profile of the U.S. military ahead of a planned full withdrawal from the country.
Also, Barack Obama — seen by many Muslims as more sympathetic to their cause — is now in the White House in place of Bush, whom many blamed for unleashing Iraq's turmoil. Moreover, with some improvements in security, some Iraqis are undecided on whether the invasion was an unmitigated evil as many long depicted it.
A spokesman who works for Bush in his Dallas office did not immediately respond to an e-mail and phone message by The Associated Press seeking comment on al-Zeidi's release.
Talking to reporters after his release, al-Zeidi said he only wanted to avenge his country's humiliation.
"Here I am, free, but my country remains captive," he said. "I confess that I am no hero, but I was humiliated to see my country violated, my Baghdad burned and my people killed."
He said that he was abused immediately after his arrest and the following day. He said he was beaten with iron bars, whipped with cords and was shocked in the backyard of the building in the Green Zone where the news conference was held. At least two of al-Zeidi's teeth appeared to be missing when he spoke at the TV station, but it was not immediately clear whether he lost them due to beatings.
"In the morning, I was left in the cold weather after they splashed me with water," he said.
He promised to reveal the names of senior officials in the Iraqi government and army who he said were involved in mistreating him.
An unrepentant al-Zeidi explained that his actions were motivated by the U.S. occupation: "I want to ask the American people if an Iraqi occupies America and kills one million Americans, displaced 5 million people and demolished and destroyed America, then what would be the reaction of the American people?”
He spoke to NBC's Steve Wende in the offices of Al-Baghdadiya, the TV station where he works.
‘Your farewell kiss’
His protest came on Bush's final visit to Iraq as president, on Dec. 14. At a press conference, al-Zeidi shot up from his chair and hurled his shoes toward Bush at the podium, shouting "this is your farewell kiss, you dog!" and "this is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq."
Bush ducked twice to avoid being hit and was unhurt. Al-Zeidi was wrestled to the ground by journalists and security men. The protest was a deep embarrassment to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was standing beside Bush.
Act of defiance
News of al-Zeidi's release brought jubilant scenes at his family home, a modest apartment in a central Baghdad commercial district.
Female relatives danced and ululated when al-Zeidi called his brother Uday to say that he was released. Men performed traditional dances and chanted rhymed verses in his honor. Sweets were handed to the two dozen reporters present and glasses of sweetened fruit drinks were given to motorists outside. Sheep were slaughtered in his honor and children wore their best clothes, with little girls in satin and lace dresses and boys in dark suits.
Haidar al-Zeidi, a 6-year-old nephew of the reporter, recited a poem composed by his father Dargham. Its refrain was "glory be to the shoes" and referred to Bush as a blood sucker.
Al-Zeidi went from the TV station to an undisclosed location for the night. His brother Uday said the reporter will travel Thursday to Greece for medical checkups and because he had concerns about his safety in Iraq. The owner of Al-Baghdadiya, businessman Aoun al-Khashloug, is based in Greece.
Al-Zeidi was convicted of assault in March, but his three-year prison sentence was reduced to one because he had no criminal record before the shoe-throwing incident. He was released three months early for good behavior.
His protest was widely celebrated in Iraq and in Arab and Muslim worlds as an act of defiance that spoke for millions who oppose the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and Washington's perceived bias in favor of Israel. It inspired Internet games and T-shirts and led some to try to offer their daughters to him in marriage.
There were also reports that a Saudi man wanted to pay $10 million for one of the shoes. A charity run by the daughter of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi bestowed a medal of courage on him.
"It's a courageous act. But by the same token, it reflects a feeling of helplessness across the Arab world," said Labib Kamhawi, a Jordanian analyst.
Some Iraqis said fear of a repeat of recent massive bombings in Baghdad, a crackdown by security forces or the fatigue caused by the dawn-to-dusk fast during the current Muslim month of Ramadan kept them from celebrating al-Zeidi's release.
Some saw a silver lining in the reporter's story.
"That he was jailed and released testifies that we have a democracy in Iraq and that America does not control Iraq," said Haidar Jabar, a mini-market owner from southwest Baghdad.
NBC News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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