BAGHDAD (Reuters) - An Iraqi reporter who hurled his shoes at former U.S. 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, wails erupted from Zaidi's family and other supporters when they heard the verdict. One of his brothers fainted and his sister Ruqaiya burst into tears, shouting: "Down with Maliki, the agent of the Americans."
Zaidi earned instant global fame in December when he threw his shoes at the visiting U.S. leader, who spearheaded the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and called him a dog at a news conference.
Dhiaa al-Saadi, the head of Zaidi's defence team, condemned the sentence as harsh and said it would be appealed.
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.
In the Middle East, hitting someone with a shoe is considered a major insult.
Zaidi's lawyers failed to convince the court to reduce the charge to insulting, rather than attempting to assault, a visiting head of state. The journalist, who has been detained since December, had faced jail time of up to 15 years.
A political analyst said the final verdict was a light one.
"Most people supported Zaidi and liked what he did, so the verdict reflects public opinion," Hazem al-Nuaimi said.
Zaidi's employer al-Baghdadiya television and a journalist advocacy group pinned their hopes on an appeal or pardon.
"We are confident of his innocence, if we understand his motives and the atmosphere created by the occupation," Baghdadiya said in a televised statement.
"It is now left to wait for a presidential or prime ministerial pardon, because we cannot accept an Iraqi journalist behind bars," said Iraq's Journalistic Freedoms Observatory.
Support for Zaidi in Iraq, where the U.S.-led invasion unleashed years of sectarian bloodshed, has not been universal. 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 globally.
"The case is politicised and is an attempt to take revenge on Zaidi. I believe the judges were under political pressure," said Ahmed al-Masoudi, a spokesman for anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's parliamentary bloc.
However, Ali al-Adeeb, a senior member of Maliki's Dawa party, dismissed the charge.
"If this case was politicised, the punishment would have been harsher, but it was dealt with legally."