BAGHDAD — "Long live Iraq!" Muntather Zaidi declared in court Thursday, according to his lawyers, after a judge sentenced the improbable hero of Iraqi nationalists to three years in prison for hurling his shoes at President George W. Bush.
Outside the courtroom, his supporters and relatives erupted in jeers over the verdict for the journalist, who gained international attention in December when at a news conference in Baghdad he called Bush a dog and lobbed his footwear at him.
"This is an American court; those are their agents!" family members and supporters chanted. "Down, down to Iraqi judiciary! Down, down [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri] Maliki! Zaidi is a hero!"
Sobbing relatives and his lawyers vowed to appeal the ruling, in a case that appeared to tap patriotic fervor in Iraq six years after the U.S.-led invasion. Many lived vicariously through the oft-televised footage of Zaidi's deed at a Dec. 14 news conference held by Maliki with Bush, in his last visit as president.
At the time, Zaidi was hailed across the Middle East by critics of Bush's policies. Some families in places as far flung as Egypt even offered their daughters in marriage to the 30-year-old, a reporter with an Iraqi satellite news channel.
Although a substantial number of Iraqis felt embarrassed by Zaidi's actions, for many his words rang true when he said to the American president: "This is a gift from the Iraqis! This is the farewell kiss, you dog! This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq!"
Zaidi's lawyers decried the verdict as harsh and said they had expected the judges to release the journalist, who had faced up to 15 years' imprisonment for assaulting a visiting head of state. Now, they pinned their hopes on an appeal.
Zaidi's relatives accused the Iraqi government of hypocrisy. They asked why American security contractors and Iraqi politicians had yet to be tried for alleged crimes while Zaidi faced charges.
"Nobody summoned [guards with the U.S. security firm] Blackwater for what they did to Iraqis. [Lawmaker] Mohammed Daini, who is suspected of killing dozens of Iraqis, is in Baghdad now. Why are they not able to detain him? Why do they do this with Muntather Zaidi?" demanded his uncle, Haidar abu Karra.
His family feared that Zaidi would be mistreated in prison. They have already accused the government of torturing him.
"There are political reasons behind the sentence," said his brother, Uday.
The courtroom was packed Thursday with more than 200 people. Zaidi's lawyers had read Bush's statement to reporters after the incident, which described what Zaidi did as democracy in action.
Zaidi, an unassuming man, told the judges he was innocent when they asked him to enter a plea. "My actions were natural like any Iraqi's," he said.
The head of his 20-man defense team, Dhia Saadi, sought to sway the judges with political arguments.
"There is an honorable motive behind what he has done," Saadi said. "This is a shoe [thrown] toward the president of the occupying state and not the tons of rockets and bombs that the Americans hit the Iraqis with!"
People rallied to Zaidi after the verdict. Iraq's journalists union called on Maliki to pardon the reporter. Two lawmakers with Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's nationalist political movement attended the trial in a show of solidarity.
Times staff writers Usama Redha in Baghdad and Ned Parker in Sulaymaniya, Iraq, contributed to this report.