BAGHDAD - The Iraqi reporter who threw his shoes at former President George W. Bush in protest was freed from prison on Tuesday and, unrepentant, he harshly condemned the U.S. presence in his country and accused authorities of torturing him.
Muntadhar al-Zeidi's stunning act of protest in December made him a hero for many in and outside Iraq. It struck a chord with millions in the Arab and Muslim worlds who have been captivated and angered by daily images of destruction and grieving since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
But nine months later, there was little public outpouring of support for him, a sign of how things have changed.
Since the incident, U.S. forces have pulled back from Iraq's cities, significantly lowering the profile of the U.S. military ahead of a planned full withdrawal from the country.
Also, Barack Obama - seen by many Muslims as more sympathetic to their cause - is now in the White House in place of Bush, whom many blamed for unleashing Iraq's turmoil. Moreover, with some improvements in security, some Iraqis are undecided on whether the invasion was an unmitigated evil as many long depicted it.
A spokesman who works for Bush in his Dallas office declined to comment Tuesday.
Talking to reporters after his release, al-Zeidi said he only wanted to avenge his country's humiliation.
"Here I am, free, but my country remains captive," he said. "I confess that I am no hero, but I was humiliated to see my country violated, my Baghdad burn and my people killed."
His protest came on Bush's final visit to Iraq as president, on Dec. 14. At a press conference, al-Zeidi shot up from his chair and hurled his shoes toward Bush at the podium, shouting "this is your farewell kiss, you dog!" and "this is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq."
Bush ducked twice to avoid being hit and was unhurt. Al-Zeidi was wrestled to the ground by journalists and security men. The protest was a deep embarrassment to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was standing beside Bush.
On Tuesday, a pale looking al-Zeidi, in a dark suit, tie and a newly grown beard, spoke emotively of the suffering of Iraqis since 2003, citing that as the motive for what he did.
"Simply put, what incited me toward confrontation is the oppression that fell upon my people and how the occupation wanted to humiliate my homeland by placing it under its boots," he said in a prepared statement he read at the offices of Al-Baghdadiya TV station, where he works and where he went immediately after his release.
He said senior officials from al-Maliki's government and Iraq's army tortured him with beatings, whippings and electric shocks immediately after his detention. At least two of al-Zeidi's teeth appeared to be missing when he spoke at the TV station, but it was not immediately clear whether he lost them due to beatings.
Al-Zeidi also said he feared for his life and claimed that U.S. agents wanted to kill him.
In Washington, CIA spokesman George Little dismissed that claim, saying, "That's so foolish as to warrant no further comment."
News of al-Zeidi's release brought jubilant scenes at his family home, a modest apartment in a central Baghdad commercial district.
Female relatives danced and ululated when al-Zeidi called his brother Uday to say that he was released. Men performed traditional dances and chanted rhymed verses in his honour. Sweets were handed to the two dozen reporters present and glasses of sweetened fruit drinks were given to motorists outside. Sheep were slaughtered in his honour and children wore their best clothes, with little girls in satin and lace dresses and boys in dark suits.
Haidar al-Zeidi, a 6-year-old nephew of the reporter, recited a poem composed by his father Dargham. Its refrain was "glory be to the shoes" and referred to Bush as a blood sucker.
Al-Zeidi went from the TV station to an undisclosed location for the night. His brother Uday said the reporter will travel Thursday to Greece for medical checkups and because he had concerns about his safety in Iraq. The owner of Al-Baghdadiya, businessman Aoun al-Khashloug, is based in Greece.
The Cairo-based lawyer for the channel, Anass al-Bayaty, said a private plane commissioned by the owner was picking al-Zeidi from Baghdad Tuesday night and flying him to Syria before moving on to Europe.
Al-Zeidi was convicted of assault in March, but his three-year prison sentence was reduced to one because he had no criminal record before the shoe-throwing incident. He was released three months early for good behaviour.
His protest was widely celebrated in Iraq and in Arab and Muslim worlds as an act of defiance that spoke for millions who oppose the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and Washington's perceived bias in favour of Israel. It inspired Internet games and T-shirts and led some to try to offer their daughters to him in marriage.
There were also reports that a Saudi man wanted to pay $10 million for one of the shoes. A charity run by the daughter of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi bestowed a medal of courage on him.
"It's a courageous act. But by the same token, it reflects a feeling of helplessness across the Arab world," said Labib Kamhawi, a Jordanian analyst.
Some Iraqis said fear of a repeat of recent massive bombings in Baghdad, a crackdown by security forces or the fatigue caused by the dawn-to-dusk fast during the current Muslim month of Ramadan kept them from celebrating al-Zeidi's release.
Some saw a silver lining in the reporter's story.
"That he was jailed and released testifies that we have a democracy in Iraq and that America does not control Iraq," said Haidar Jabar, a mini-market owner from southwest Baghdad.