BAGHDAD - An Iraqi reporter who shot to worldwide fame when he hurled his shoes at then U.S. President George W. Bush was released from prison on Tuesday.
Muntazer al-Zaidi, whose outburst during a news conference last December chimed with the feelings of many Iraqis toward the former U.S. leader, was met outside the jail by parliamentarians who support him, brother Uday al-Zaidi said.
Zaidi was sentenced to three years in jail for assaulting a head of state, but his sentence was later reduced to one year.
Today I am free again but my home is still a prison, he told reporters shortly after his release, a swipe at the continued U.S. military presence in Iraq six and half years after the invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.
Al-Baghdadiya television showed footage of Zaidi arriving at its station surrounded by guards. He was wrapped in an Iraqi flag and wore black sunglasses. On arrival, the staff at his TV station slaughtered at least three sheep in his honor.
The occupation invaded us under the pretext of liberation. It divided brothers, neighbors, it made our houses endless funeral tents and our streets cemeteries, he said, referring to the tit-for-tat sectarian slaughter unleashed by the invasion that has only subsided in the last two years.
He was slurring his speech because of a missing tooth, but otherwise seemed in good health. His brothers alleged that Zaidi was beaten by guards after his arrest.
Millions of people across the world saw online or TV footage of Zaidi throwing his shoes at Bush and calling him a dog, both insults in the Middle East.
An Iraqi court ordered Zaidi's release on Monday because under Iraqi law all prisoners sentenced to one year without previous convictions and who show good behavior get out after serving three quarters of the sentence.
Even many Iraqis who backed the war to remove Saddam quickly soured at U.S. actions following his fall, like the refusal to intervene to stop looting, the decision to formally occupy Iraq with Paul Bremer as viceroy, instead of handing power back to Iraqis, and the sexual humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
I felt humiliated to see my country burn and my people killed, Zaidi said, explaining his outburst.
Zaidi's protest caused huge embarrassment to Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who tried to intercept one of the shoes as he stood beside Bush.
Thanks be to God that Muntazer has seen the light of day, brother Uday said. I wish Bush could see our happiness. When President Bush looks back and turns the pages of his life, he will see the shoes of Muntazer al Zaidi on every page.
Many viewers, including in the United States, applauded the journalist's bravery.
Venezuela's anti-American President Hugo Chavez called him courageous. A Libyan group headed by Maummar Gaddafi's daughter gave him an award. Fathers from other Arab nations have offered Muntazer their daughters as brides.
At Zaidi's house, his family and a crowd of supporters eagerly awaiting him cheered and ululated.
I feel proud because Zaidi lives in my neighborhood. I like telling people that, Arkan al-Fartousi, 25, carrying a jug of juice he was serving to thirsty supporters. I'm so happy he's out from jail.
(Additional reporting by Suadad al-Salhy, Khalid al-Ansary and Reuters Television; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)