In a land replete with martyrs and miscreants, Iraqis are divided over which label applies to Muntazer al-Zaidi. The once obscure television journalist who shot to fame for hurling his footwear at then President George W. Bush during a Baghdad press conference late last year was sentenced on Thursday to three years in prison after being found guilty of "assaulting a foreign leader on an official visit." But despite the verdict of Baghdad's Central Criminal Court, many ordinary Iraqis still hail the 30-year-old Shi'ite shoe thrower as a national hero.
Al-Zaidi pleaded not guilty and defended himself on patriotic grounds, saying his action was a "natural response to the occupation." He defiantly shouted, "Long live Iraq!" and "I will sacrifice for the sake of all of the martyrs" as his verdict was read out. And his sentiments are shared by many in the capital. "They should erect a statue in his honor, not put him in jail," said Abu Sayyed, a 55-year-old taxi driver in Baghdad's Karrada district. (See pictures of the shoe attack and its aftermath.)
In the days and weeks since the Baghdadia network correspondent fastballed his size 10s at Bush during Bush's joint press conference with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad on Dec. 14, his actions have been the talk of the town. Banners were hung in his honor in many parts of the capital. And in Saddam Hussein's former stronghold of Tikrit, a statue of a large shoe was erected but then quickly removed, on orders from the Iraqi parliament. Support for al-Zaidi elsewhere in the Arab world was even more effusive, his seemingly spontaneous act resonating across a region deeply embittered by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Al-Zaidi told the court last month that he could not control his emotions once Bush started speaking. "I had the feeling that the blood of innocent people was dropping on my feet during the time that he was smiling and coming to say bye-bye to Iraq with a dinner," he was quoted as telling the court. "So I took the first shoe and threw it, but it did not hit him. Then spontaneously I took the second shoe, but it did not hit him either. I was not trying to kill the commander of the occupation forces of Iraq."
Bush nimbly ducked the leather projectiles and brushed off the matter. "So what if a guy threw his shoe at me?" he said at the time. But Prime Minister al-Maliki was not as blasé, and many Iraqis sympathetic to al-Zaidi, including his family, laid Thursday's conviction squarely at the Prime Minister's feet. "This is a political court. Muntazer is being treated like a prisoner of war. He is not a normal prisoner," the correspondent's brother Odai told reporters outside the courtroom. "This decision has been taken by the Prime Minister's office."
But not everyone saw al-Zaidi as a political scapegoat. Nibras Maamorie, a correspondent with Iraq's Sumaria television station, said al-Zaidi's actions were an embarrassment to the country and to his profession. "He's set a bad example for journalists in Iraq," she said. "I'm not a legal expert I don't know if he should have been sentenced but as a journalist, I reject his actions."
Still, even some Iraqis who agreed with such comments viewed the sentence as unduly harsh. But it could have been a lot worse: the correspondent, who has been in custody since he was wrestled to the ground by security men seconds after throwing his shoes, faced up to 15 years in jail. His 25-person-strong defense team has said it will appeal the verdict.
Wael Abdel-Latif al-Fadel, a Shi'ite parliamentarian and former judge, isn't optimistic about al-Zaidi's chances of prevailing on appeal. "The ruling is in line with Iraqi law. George Bush was visiting Iraq as a head of state," he said. "He should have been treated with the Arab hospitality that our traditions dictate, not the actions of Muntazer al-Zaidi."