BAGHDAD (AP) -- The Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at then-President George W. Bush was convicted Thursday of assaulting a foreign leader and sentenced to three years in prison, provoking outrage among many Iraqis who consider him a hero.
Muntadhar al-Zeidi's bold act in December electrified many across the Middle East who saw it as a fitting protest against a president widely reviled for his policies in the region, including the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
A poll released Thursday showed that an overwhelming majority of Iraqis surveyed considered al-Zeidi a hero.
The 30-year-old journalist pleaded not guilty to the assault charge, telling the three-judge panel that "what I did was a natural response to the occupation."
Reporters and family members were then ordered out of the courtroom for the verdict, which was relayed to them by defense attorneys and a court official. Defense lawyers said al-Zeidi shouted "long live Iraq" when the sentence was imposed.
Some of al-Zeidi's relatives collapsed after the ruling was issued and had to be helped out of the courthouse. Others were forcibly removed by guards after shouting "down with Bush" and "long live Iraq."
"This judiciary is not just," al-Zeidi's brother, Dargham, said tearfully after the verdict was announced.
Al-Zeidi received the minimum sentence for the assault charge but could appeal the conviction, said court spokesman Abdul-Sattar Bayrkdar. He could have received up to 15 years in prison for hurling his shoes at Bush during a Dec. 14 news conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Defense lawyers said the judge showed leniency because of al-Zeidi's age and clean record. But they had hoped for an even lighter sentence, arguing the journalist's actions constituted an insult rather than an assault.
"The sentence was unexpectedly harsh," said Yehya al-Eitabi, one of some two dozen defense lawyers who attended Thursday's hearing. He said they would appeal the verdict.
Many Iraqis interviewed in Baghdad agreed.
"Al-Zeidi should have been honored and not sent to prison," said Salam Omar, who owns a mobile phone shop in eastern Baghdad.
"Al-Zeidi was expressing his point of view about Bush in a democratic way. The court should have adopted a more humane approach and released him," he said.
But Serwan Gharaib, a 37-year-old journalist in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, said al-Zeidi had violated journalistic ethics by exploiting his access to Bush.
"I may understand the suffering of the Iraqi people due to the occupation, but I do not understand the bizarre method of protest conducted by al-Zeidi," he said.
Among Sunni Arabs, support for the young Shiite reporter was highest - 84 percent, according to ABC. Support for him was lowest among the Kurds at 38 percent, ABC said.
ABC said the findings were based on 2,228 face-to-face interviews with a random national sample of Iraqis conducted Feb. 17-25. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points. The full survey will be released Monday ahead of the sixth anniversary of the war, ABC said.
The journalist has been in Iraqi custody since the shoe incident. Bush quickly ducked to avoid being hit and was not injured. Al-Zeidi was quickly wrestled to the ground by guards and dragged away.
During Thursday's proceedings, al-Zeidi, wearing a beige suit over a brown shirt and brown leather shoes, walked swiftly to the wooden dock where defendants are kept and greeted the panel of three judges with a nod and a wave.
Presiding Judge Abdul-Amir al-Rubaie asked al-Zeidi to enter a plea.
"I am innocent," he replied.
The proceedings took place under heavy guard with scores of armed policemen inside the courtroom and the Iraqi soldiers who escorted al-Zeidi waiting outside.
The trial began on Feb. 19 but was adjourned until Thursday as the judges weighed a defense argument that the current charge is not applicable because Bush was not in Baghdad on an official visit, having arrived unannounced and without an invitation.
Al-Rubaie read a response from the prime minister's office insisting it was an official visit.
Chief defense attorney Dhia al-Saadi then demanded that the charge be dismissed, saying his client's action "was an expression of freedom and does not constitute a crime."
He echoed al-Zeidi's testimony at the previous hearing, saying his client had been provoked by anger over Bush's claims of success in a war that has devastated his country.
"It was an act of throwing a shoe and not a rocket. It was meant as an insult to the occupation," the lawyer said.
The judge then turned to the defendant and asked whether he had anything to add.
"I have great faith in the Iraqi judiciary. It is a judiciary that is both just and has integrity," al-Zeidi responded.
Many people in the region - angry over the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq - have embraced al-Zeidi. They have staged large street rallies calling for his release, and one Iraqi man erected a sofa-sized sculpture of a shoe in his honor that the Iraqi government later ordered removed.
When al-Zeidi threw his shoes at Bush, he shouted in Arabic: "This is your farewell kiss, you dog! This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq."
Al-Maliki was deeply embarrassed by the action against an American president who had stood by him when some Arab leaders were quietly urging the U.S. to oust him.