Images were broadcast all over the world of Muntadhir al-Zaidi throwing his shoes at the U.S. leader at a press conference in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone.
(RFE/RL) -- When Iraqi journalist Muntadhir al-Zaidi threw his shoes at U.S. President George W. Bush at a Baghdad news conference in December 2008, his action caught the imagination of the Arab world.
Sentenced initially to three years in prison for insulting a foreign head of state, Zaidi saw his sentence reduced to one year on appeal, and family members say he has now been released for good conduct after serving barely nine months of his term.
During the time he was in jail, Zaidi was showered with gifts and honors from around the Arab world.
A new four-bedroom home has reportedly been built for him by his former employer, the Cairo-based Al-Baghdadiyah TV channel. He's also been offered a new sports car, as well as a health-care program.
The head of the channel’s Cairo bureau, Abdul Hamid al-Sayih, has been quoted as saying that an Iraqi living in Morocco called to offer his daughter to be Zaidi's wife.
Another called from Saudi Arabia offering $10 million for his shoes -- but these were destroyed by investigators at the time fearing they might contain explosives. Yet another caller offered a gold-saddled horse.
Muntadhir al-Zaidi after his release
According to Al-Baghdadiyah staff, they also received calls from many women asking to marry him.
At government level, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi has awarded Zaidi the country's highest honor.Changes In Iraq
Bush, who successfully dodged the shoes, sought to make light of the incident, saying such things happen in a democracy.
Certainly such a defiance of authority could not have occurred during Saddam Hussein's rule without dire consequences for the thrower.
"If it were in Saddam's time, would he be able to throw a shoe? Certainly not," one man told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq in a Baghdad street survey.
"For God's sake, I am not happy with his release because he must serve all of his prison term as a lesson to Iraqis to not repeat his action."
In that sense, Zaidi was using -- in extreme form -- the newfound freedom of expression introduced to Iraq by the U.S.-led international coalition, to express his personal convictions.
Zaidi's family had already been celebrating for several days ahead of the release. "We are very happy today," his aunt, Umm Zaman, told Reuters TV.
"My feeling is the feeling of an aunt and a mother who has not seen her son for nine months and has not known much about him, except for very short visits, visits that were not allowed for all. God willing, today is our festival, a national festival for us and for Iraqis."Act Of Defiance
The assault on Bush has been followed by other shoe-throwing incidents involving political leaders.
In February this year, a shoe was hurled at Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, while he was making a speech at Britain's Cambridge University.
The shoe came from a German student of pathology, Martin Jahnka, but missed its target. Jahnka said later that his action was meant as a pro-democracy protest.
However, no such popular enthusiasm developed for Jahnka as it did in for Zaidi. Why?
The surge of Arab admiration for the Iraqi journalist may have its psychological roots in the political realities of the Arab world.
Ordinary people in the region do not have the opportunity to challenge leaders through democratic means, and even criticizing them has its dangers. A personal insult to a powerful figure like Bush represents an almost unbelievable act of defiance, and many people may have identified with its audacity.
"Arab people throughout their lives have witnessed defeats and losses caused by America and Israel," a woman told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq in a Baghdad street survey.
"So the Arabs are looking for a way to retaliate against America and Bush. They found this act to achieve the dream of harming Bush with words or something else, so they considered this as their victory."
In another case, in March 2009, reports came from independent news sites in Iran that someone had thrown a shoe at the motorcade of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad during a visit to the city of Urmia.
The reported cause of the incident was local anger that the motorcade had earlier run into a man and had not stopped to check whether he was injured.