By Nada Bakri
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
BAGHDAD, Sept. 15 -- After nine months in jail, Muntadar al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who hurled his shoes at then-President George W. Bush, remained unrepentant upon his release Tuesday, saying that his life in Iraq is in danger and that he was tortured in prison.
The little-known television reporter catapulted to fame after the news conference for Bush and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in December in Baghdad.
In the aftermath, Zaidi received medals from Arab potentates, marriage proposals and a $10 million offer for his shoes from a rich Saudi. Restaurants were named after him, and shoes became a new accouterment of protesters in demonstrations against the United States.
After his release, the 30-year-old tried to offer an explanation for his actions at a news conference at al-Baghdadia television station, where he had worked. The 2003 U.S.-led invasion that "burned" his country, he said, had left him humiliated and eager for revenge.
"What drove me to the confrontation was the injustice that befell my country and people, and how the occupation tried to humiliate my homeland and crushed the people, men, women and children," he said.
"The chance came," Zaidi added, "and I did not miss it."
He said he now feared for his life in Iraq.
In a dark suit and with an Iraqi flag wrapped around his neck, Zaidi looked in good physical condition except for a missing front tooth, which his family said he lost when he was allegedly beaten in prison.
Iraqi officials have said Zaidi was treated fairly during his arrest and detention. But he said Iraqi authorities began abusing him as soon as he was taken into custody. He said that after his arrest, he was taken to the back yard of the building where the news conference with Bush had been held and beaten with iron cables, subjected to electric shocks, and left soaked in water until the next morning in a cold place without heat.
He vowed to release the names of those who he said tortured him, including senior officials in the government and the army.
The shoe-throwing episode made Zaidi a hero to many in the Arab and Muslim worlds, seeming to channel the anger of millions toward a U.S. administration that many blamed for suffering in the region. As the news of his release was announced, women gathered in his apartment building, dancing and chanting. Men and children recited poems praising Zaidi and chanted: "Long live the shoes!" More than a dozen sheep were brought in, ostensibly to be slaughtered in his honor.
His brothers, within earshot of reporters, argued whether they should bring him home to a neighborhood with lax security or take him somewhere else. They said he would spend the night at an undisclosed location and fly Wednesday to Greece, where he would undergo medical exams. The owner of al-Baghdadia lives in Athens, and a spokesman for the television channel said Zaidi was expected to resume his job as a reporter.
Zaidi had received a three-year sentence in March after being convicted of insulting a head of state. The sentence was later reduced to one year, but he was released early because he had no prior criminal record.
"Here I am free while my country is still in captivity," Zaidi said.