September 15, 2009 / 9:28 AM / 8 years ago

Iraqi who threw shoes at Bush released from jail

* Says Iraqi guards tortured him

* Freed after nine months for good behaviour

* Zaidi has become an icon in the Middle East



(Adds U.S. State Department reaction, paragraph 5, edits)

By Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD, Sept 15 (Reuters) - An Iraqi reporter who shot to worldwide fame when he hurled his shoes at U.S. President George W. Bush was released from prison on Tuesday and accused the Iraqi guards who seized him of beating and electrocuting him.

Muntazer al-Zaidi, whose outburst during a news conference last December chimed with the feelings of many Iraqis towards the former U.S. leader, was sentenced to three years’ jail for assaulting a head of state. This was later reduced to one year.

"Today I am free again but my home is still a prison," he told reporters shortly after his release, a swipe at the continued U.S. military presence in Iraq six and a half years after the invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.

Zaidi said he was tortured after he was arrested in a room not far from where the news conference was held. He said guards beat him with cables and metal tubes and gave him electric shocks. His story was not possible to verify independently.

U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told journalists in Washington: "These kinds of accusations we take very seriously and we trust that the Iraqi government will do so ... we’re pleased he’s been released."

His employer, Al-Baghdadiya television, showed footage of Zaidi arriving at its offices surrounded by guards. He was wrapped in an Iraqi flag and wore black sunglasses. Staff at his TV station slaughtered at least three sheep in his honour.

"The occupation forces invaded us under the pretext of liberation. They divided brothers, neighbours, they made our houses endless funeral tents and our streets cemeteries," he said, referring to the sectarian slaughter unleashed by the invasion that has only subsided in the last two years.

His speech was slurred because of a missing tooth, but he otherwise seemed in good health. He left for Syria in the evening for a medical check-up, his brother Uday said.



"HUMILIATED"

Millions of people across the world saw footage of Zaidi throwing his footwear at Bush and calling him a "dog", both grave insults in the Middle East.

"This is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, dog," he shouted. "This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq."

A court ordered Zaidi’s release on Monday. Under Iraqi law all convicts serving one year with no previous crimes who show good behaviour get out after three quarters of the sentence.

Many Iraqis who backed the war to remove Saddam turned against the United States after his fall, angered by such events as its failure to stop looting, formal occupation led by a U.S. viceroy, and the sexual humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

"I felt humiliated to see my country burn," Zaidi said.

His protest caused huge embarrassment to Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who tried to intercept one of the shoes. Zaidi said he now feared for his life.

"These sinister agencies, the American intelligence and the agencies affiliated to it will not spare any effort to pursue me. I ... warn those close to me that the agencies may kill me."

After images of the shoe-throwing were broadcast, many people worldwide applauded the journalist. Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez called him courageous. A Libyan group headed by Muammar Gaddafi’s daughter gave him an award. Fathers from Arab countries offered Muntazer their daughters as brides.

Uday said: "When President Bush looks back and turns the pages of his life, he will see the shoes of Muntazer al-Zaidi on every page."

At Zaidi’s house, supporters cheered and ululated.

"I feel proud because Zaidi lives in my neighbourhood. I like telling people that," said Arkan al-Fartousi, 25. (Additional reporting by Suadad al-Salhy, Khalid al-Ansary and Reuters Television; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Andrew Roche)



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