'I was tortured' claims Iraqi who threw his shoes at Bush

Sheep are slaughtered and jubilant supporters gather in honour of the release of the unrepentant journalist
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The Independent Online

The Iraqi journalist who hurled a shoe at George Bush during the former president's final visit to Baghdad last December emerged from prison yesterday still voicing his fury at the US but also excoriating his own people by claiming he had been tortured, beaten and subjected to electric shocks while in custody.

Muntazer al-Zaidi, who was originally sentenced to three years behind bars for the incident, told a packed news conference in the television station where he once worked that he intended to expose those involved in his alleged mistreatment. Among them, he said, were high-ranking Iraqi security officials.

Family members said they were celebrating his early release on grounds of good behaviour. "Thanks be to God that Muntazer has seen the light of day," said his brother Uday. "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."

They added, however, that he feared for his life in Iraq and would flee almost immediately to Greece. "He is going to flee," Uday said.

Both the US and the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would have preferred a quieter release of Mr Zaidi. Instead, with his allegations – which have not been independently verified – he has put a spotlight not only on the conditions of his custody but also the continuing security shortfalls in Iraq. "I am free and my country is still captured," Mr Zaidi said at his press conference, in an apparent reference to his decision to leave.

It hardly helped that the scenes of jubilation surrounding Mr Zaidi's arrest coincided with a surprise visit to Baghdad yesterday by Vice President Joe Biden, who held talks with Mr Maliki. En route to Iraq, Mr Biden changed planes at Mildenhall Royal Air Force base in Suffolk.

According to Mr Zaidi, Prime Minister Maliki was disingenuous in telling the Iraqi people after his arrest that he would be well cared for. "At the time that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said on television that he could not sleep without being reassured on my fate... I was being tortured in the worst ways, beaten with electric cables and iron bars," he said. "I am not a hero and I admit that. I am a person with a stance. I saw my country burning."

Mr Zaidi rocketed to cult-hero status across the Middle East and around the globe after he astonished US correspondents and the Iraqi government with his outburst at the December news conference with Mr Bush. He called Mr Bush "a dog", also a grave insult in the Arab world, and missed him by inches with his shoe. Prime Minster Maliki was forced to raise his hands to shield Mr Bush's face in case a second shoe took flight.

"This is a gift from the Iraqis," were the words carried on news bulletins around the world. "This is the farewell kiss, you dog!"

Yesterday, Mr Zaidi was greeted as he left prison by members of the Iraqi parliament who had supported him. As he reached the al-Baghdadia television station where he worked, staff members slaughtered at least two sheep in his honour. On the streets of the capital, supporters banged drums and shouted his name.

Showing no remorse for his actions, Mr Zaidi, a Shia Muslim, instead reiterated why he had felt so angry at Mr Bush for ordering the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. He had reported the war for his television station and had seen first hand the impact of the violence. "The occupation invaded us under the pretext of liberation. It divided brothers and neighbours; it made our houses funeral tents and our streets cemeteries," he said.

Recalling the moment he threw the shoe, he went on: "I saw the chance and I seized it. If those who blamed me knew how many destroyed houses I walked over with those shoes, and how many times those shoes mixed with the blood of the innocent, and how many times those shoes went into homes where the honour of those who lived there was disgraced, then it was the proper response."

He was also explicit in threatening to expose those he says were responsible for his torture in prison. "I will name later those involved in torturing me, among them high-ranking officials in the government and the army," he said.

What President Bush did next

Life for George Bush over the last nine months has been short on torture. Writing a memoir, making the odd speech and keeping an eye on the construction of his presidential library in Texas is about the extent of his daily labours.

"He is riding his mountain bike a lot; he likes that," Laura Bush also told CNN this week. The summer has been spent at their new home in Dallas. Laura is writing too, but apparently less efficiently than her husband. "He is very disciplined," she revealed.