It is seventeen years since US bombs started to rain on Baghdad. The illegal US-led 2003 invasion caused more than 150,000 deaths, cost trillions of dollars and its repercussions continue to have serious effects across the region, on foreign policy and on thousands of families.
The invasion was a crime of aggression under international law, and was opposed by people and countries all over the world. Thirty million people took to the streets in 60 countries on 15 February 2003 to express their opposition to the war, and their horror that this could really be happening in the 21st century. Iraq, they pointed out, posed no threat to the US. Its government had neither the means nor the intention of waging war against America, nor did it issue any threat to do so.
“[US President] George W Bush said that if he were to enter Iraq,” explained Muntadhar Al-Zaidi, “the Iraqis would welcome him with flowers and this turned into a stereotype thanks to the security agencies and the Zio-American and Arab media portraying us as the betrayers.” Al-Zaidi is the journalist who, memorably, in 2008 threw his shoes at Bush during a press conference. “The people of Iraq resisted the occupation from day one. It was and remains their legitimate right to resist occupation.”
Working for Al-Baghdadia TV, Al-Zaidi made headlines by hurling his shoes at Bush in Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s official residence. “This is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog,” he yelled in Arabic as he threw the first shoe. “This is from the widows, the orphans, and those who were killed in Iraq,” he added with the second.
The video of the incident is iconic. Nevertheless, Al-Zaidi was convicted of assaulting a foreign leader and imprisoned, unaware of the impact of his protest. He was held in solitary confinement in a tiny cell for three months.
Now 39, Al-Zaidi served a total of nine months in prison. He alleges that he was tortured by Iraqi security officers. His early release was down to good behaviour. Solitary confinement haunts him to this day, and he habitually spreads his arms to measure room sizes and compare them with the size of his cell.
“When I was remodelling my bathroom,” he said, “I remembered my cell. I spread my arms and found that it was bigger than my cell, which was barely big enough for me to spread my arms. I could barely fit in it.”
As Al-Zaidi explained later in an op-ed for the Guardian, as a journalist he had to report on daily tragedies in Iraq. He would enter ruined homes and hear the screams of orphans; he pledged to seek vengeance.
“I vowed that if I met this criminal [Bush] I was going to show him his worth with my shoe because he lied and said that the Iraqi people would welcome him with flowers. Unfortunately, the world believed him, and we were surrounded by lies that had nothing to do with us.”
After his release from prison, Al-Zaidi quit journalism and moved to Geneva and then Beirut, where he set up a humanitarian organisation to help victims of the Iraq war. The intention was to help build orphanages and medical centres offering free treatment to those affected by the war.
Rather than simply being an observer or listener to accounts of torture, the former journalist now regards himself as a survivor. For those like himself, he insists, there is unfinished business.
Today, Al-Zaidi is back in Baghdad and working as a politician against the corruption that plagues his country. His only motivation for entering politics is to achieve justice. “I don’t want to see anyone oppressed and not help them. I want to help anyone I can. This is my goal in life. My people have suffered enough.”
The West’s hypocrisy in the region (and elsewhere) can be measured by its relationship with former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussain. When he invaded Iran in 1980 he was the West’s man. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in the eight years of the war. By 2003, the West had no more use for him.
Moreover, has anyone ever been punished for the scandalous abuse of Iraqi and other detainees at Abu Ghraib prison? The dehumanising images that emerged from the prison showed naked Iraqis having leashes attached to them as though they were animals; being stacked upon each other; and being subjected to torture including waterboarding and sodomy. Smiling American soldiers were in many of the images, their obscene grins symbolising a kind of unthinking cruelty that came to define the war for a generation of Iraqis. Such images only came out of the camps we know about and which have been leaked to the public.
“It is our ambition and dream that foreign intervention in Iraqi affairs is eliminated,” said Al-Zaidi. “This will be hard, but it is not impossible. We will remain on the streets until we get what we want. Of course, our biggest demand is a free and independent Iraq without foreign intervention, and a fair government that takes care of its people, without massive corruption. We have only got rid of 10 per cent of the effects of the occupation; it is only the tip of the iceberg.”
Most of the men running Iraq today are former exiles who flew into Baghdad in 2003 on the heels of the US and British invasion forces. Iraq’s young people have taken to the streets to demand an end to the corrupt post-2003 Iraqi political regime and American and Iranian influence over Iraqi politics.
One former exile in the West, Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, the cousin of former US-appointed interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, was nominated as Prime Minister in February because the incumbent Adil Abdul-Mahdi had said last November that he would step down in the face of the protests on the streets of Iraq. More than 600 protesters have been killed to date. Allawi withdrew his nomination within weeks after the National Assembly failed to approve his cabinet. Abdul-Mahdi eventually stepped down last month.
“My objections and reservations are not with the people who are elected,” explained Al-Zaidi, “but with those who appoint the same corrupt parties that we protested against. We did not sacrifice almost 700 martyrs for them to replace Adil Abdul-Mahdi with Mustafa Al-Kadhimi or even with Muntadhar Al-Zaidi or anyone else. No! We protested against the corrupt clique that ruled Iraq for 17 years and did not achieve anything at all, not even a simple project.”
According to Al-Zaidi, solidarity for justice must be global. In fact, he believes that his relative fame gives him a responsibility to struggle for this. He’s using his social media platforms, where he has more than 56,000 followers, to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and the protesters calling out police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in the US last month.
“We stand in solidarity with these protesters because they are oppressed,” he told Mashable. “We in Iraq have suffered from American power and authority since the occupation of the US military in 2003 so all of our support, sympathy and solidarity is with those on the streets in America and elsewhere.”
Muntadhar Al-Zaidi wants people to remember that he did not stay silent against the oppressor, against the occupation of his country and the killing of his people. “I hope people around the world will continue to fight against injustice. If I was able to go back in time, I would throw my shoes at George W Bush again. My wish is to see him and everyone who occupied Iraq in prison one day.”