Iraqi shoe thrower released; says he was tortured

BAGHDAD – 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.

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 declined to comment Tuesday.

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 burn and my people killed."

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.

On Tuesday, a pale looking al-Zeidi, in a dark suit, tie and a newly grown beard, spoke emotively of the suffering of Iraqis since 2003, citing that as the motive for what he did.

"Simply put, what incited me toward confrontation is the oppression that fell upon my people and how the occupation wanted to humiliate my homeland by placing it under its boots," he said in a prepared statement he read at the offices of Al-Baghdadiya TV station, where he works and where he went immediately after his release.

He said senior officials from al-Maliki's government and Iraq's army tortured him with beatings, whippings and electric shocks immediately after his detention. 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.

Al-Zeidi also said he feared for his life and claimed that U.S. agents wanted to kill him.

In Washington, CIA spokesman George Little dismissed that claim, saying, "That's so foolish as to warrant no further comment."

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly acknowledged that al-Zeidi had made serious allegations of rights abuse.

"These kinds of accusation we take very seriously, and we trust that the Iraqi government will take them seriously, as well," he said.

"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.

sculpture in central London. REUTERS/Toby Melville