BAGHDAD (Reuters) - An Iraqi reporter who hurled his shoes at former President George W. Bush was convicted of attempting to assault a foreign leader on Thursday and jailed for three years, dismaying many Iraqis who regard him as a hero.
Muntazer al-Zaidi, 30, who pleaded not guilty to the charge, told the Baghdad court: What I did was a natural reaction for the crimes committed against the Iraqi people.
Outside the courtroom, Zaidi's sister Ruqaiya burst into tears when she heard the verdict, shouting: Down with Maliki, the agent of the Americans.
Zaidi earned instant worldwide fame in December when he threw his shoes at the visiting U.S. leader, who spearheaded the 2003 invasion to oust Saddam Hussein, and called him a dog at a news conference.
Dhiaa al-Saadi, the head of Zaidi's defense team, condemned the sentence as harsh and said it would be contested in the appeals court.
The government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who was standing next to Bush at the news conference and tried the block a shoe, described the incident as a barbaric act.
At the start of his trial in February, Zaidi said Bush's smile as he talked about achievements in Iraq had made him think of the killing of more than a million Iraqis, the disrespect for the sanctity of mosques and houses, the rapes of women.
Enraged, he removed his shoes and hurled them one by one at Bush, shouting This is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, dog. Bush ducked, and was not hit by the flying footwear.
Zaidi's lawyers failed to convince the court to reduce the charge to insulting, rather than attempting to assault, a visiting head of state which would have incurred a more lenient sentence. The journalist, who has been detained since December, could have been sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.
The Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, an Iraqi group that advocates for reporters, said the verdict came as a shock.
It is now left to wait for a presidential or prime ministerial pardon, because we cannot accept an Iraqi journalist behind bars, said Hadi Jalu, the group's deputy director.
Opinion about Zaidi, a reporter with al-Baghdadiya television, has been divided in Iraq, where the U.S.-led invasion unleashed years of sectarian bloodshed that has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis and displaced many more.
Some said a guest of Iraq should not be insulted, and that the incident embarrassed the country and its journalists.
But Zaidi has also been hailed in Iraq and across the Middle East as a hero. His action against Bush has been adopted by many as an act of protest, and shoe-throwing has caught on at demonstrations around the world.
The case is politicized and is an attempt to take revenge on Zaidi. I believe the judges were under political pressure from known factions ... the verdict is unfair, said Ahmed al-Masoudi, a spokesman for parliamentarians loyal to anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
However, Ali al-Adeeb, a senior member of Maliki's Dawa party, dismissed the charge.
If this case was politicized, the punishment would have been harsher, but it was dealt with legally.
(Additional reporting by Aseel Kami and Khalid al-Ansary, Writing by Mohammed Abbas; Editing by Katie Nguyen)