Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki says his government did not intervene in the trial of the journalist who hurled his shoes at former US President George W Bush, but offered little sympathy for the man many consider a hero for his protest.
In an interview broadcast on Sunday, al-Maliki disagreed that many Iraqis supported Muntadhar al-Zeidi's act of shoe-throwing during a news conference last December by the two leaders in Baghdad.
Al-Zeidi was sentenced earlier this month in an Iraqi court to three years in prison after a quick trial, two relatively brief hearings that fed widespread suspicion among Iraqis that al-Maliki's US-backed government orchestrated the process.
Defense lawyers said they had no evidence of interference, although they argued the sentence wasn't warranted because al-Zeidi's act was an expression of freedom and not a crime. Al-Maliki told the partly government-funded Special Broadcasting Service that al-Zeidi could have faced much worse for the crime of insulting a visiting head of state.
"What this man did in an official prime ministerial venue, in the presence of the prime minister and a state visitor, the Iraqi law, the Iraqi constitution, even under the old regime, applies sentences for 15 years up to execution," al-Maliki said.
"We left it to the law and did not interfere, and he was sentenced to three years," al-Maliki said in SBS's translation of the interview from Arabic. It was recorded during al-Maliki's March 10-14 visit to Australia.
Al-Zeidi's brazen act turned the 30-year-old reporter into a folk hero across the Arab world, where the former US president is reviled for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Powerful Shiite clerics have called for al-Zeidi's release. Al-Maliki said he did not believe Iraqis supported al-Zeidi because they respected their guests and the shoe-throwing act "does not comply with the values and ethics of the Iraqi people."
He said Iraqi forces would be ready to take over security as US troops withdrew from his country, and that "the sectarian war is over" in Iraq, with political gangs responsible for most violence in the country now.
"We are not worried about Iraq, neither economically because it is a rich country, nor politically because the political process has settled on the basis of governing in a peaceful and democratic manner, and nor for the security side of it," he said.