- The Washington Times - Friday, March 13, 2009

BAGHDAD

A court convicted an Iraqi journalist of assault Thursday for hurling his shoes at former President George W. Bush and sentenced him to three years in prison, prompting an outburst from his family and calls for his release from Iraqis who consider him an icon for a nation decimated by war.

Muntadhar al-Zeidi, 30, defiantly shouted, “Long live Iraq!” when the sentence was imposed, according to defense attorneys. Some of his relatives collapsed and had to be helped out of the courthouse. Others were forcibly removed by guards after shouting “Down with Bush!”

“This judiciary is unjust,” al-Zeidi’s brother, Dargham, said tearfully.

Other family members shouted insults against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who like al-Zeidi is a Shi’ite.

Although al-Zeidi received the minimum sentence - it could have been 15 years behind bars - his attorneys denounced the verdict and said they would appeal, possibly hoping a public outcry would aid their cause.

Al-Zeidi’s brazen act during a Dec. 14 news conference by Mr. Bush and Mr. al-Maliki in Baghdad’s Green Zone turned the young reporter into a folk hero across the Arab world, where the former U.S. president is reviled for invading Iraq in 2003 and for other policies.

Many Iraqis interviewed after the verdict said the sentence was too harsh and that al-Zeidi was a hero for standing up to Mr. Bush. Supporters defended his act as a political statement in Arab culture, where throwing shoes at someone is considered an especially serious insult.

But protests on al-Zeidi’s behalf have drawn few participants since December, and there was no sign of spontaneous rallies Thursday after the noon verdict.

It appeared unlikely, therefore, that Mr. al-Maliki would recommend a presidential pardon for the journalist, at least anytime soon.

Mr. al-Maliki was deeply embarrassed by the assault against an American president who had stood by him when some Arab leaders were quietly urging the United States to oust him. His aides had said the prime minister was personally offended by such an insult to a foreign guest.

An ABC News/BBC/NHK poll released Thursday found that 62 percent of Iraqis surveyed considered al-Zeidi a hero and only 24 percent considered him a criminal.

Support was highest among Sunni Arabs - 84 percent - and lowest among the Kurds at 38 percent, according to ABC.

Last month, a German student threw a shoe at Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao during a speech at Britain’s Cambridge University. The student, Martin Jahnke, is free on bail until his trial in June on charges of disturbing public order.

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