Muntader al-Zaidi is perhaps the most significant face of Iraqi discontent with the American invasion and influence in Iraq. He made history when, on December 14, 2008, during a press conference, he threw his shoes at President George W. Bush Jr. saying, “This is a farewell kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog!” He thus became a national hero for many Iraqis and the inspiration for a number of similar protests around the world.
Fifteen years later, I met Muntader al-Zaidi at his home in Baghdad.
This interview is a part “The Reality of a Fictional War” report series from Iraq. Read the first and second part of the cycle here:
It has been 20 years since the start of the US invasion. Everyone wonders: is it better now?
No, it is worse than it was under Saddam Hussein. Then we had a dictator and a murderer. Now we have more dictators and killers.
We have more militias, more corrupt politicians, more harmful policies. I think it is a very difficult time for the Iraqi people, who have suffered for the last 20 years from everything you can think of. Unemployment, poor education, poor healthcare, lack of any kind of adequate infrastructure. The Baghdad you see now is the same Baghdad of 1983. The same buildings, roads and bridges. Nothing is improving.
Since 2003, USD 1 trillion has been spent rebuilding Iraq. Where are they? Do you see an effect? The corruption is appalling. And perhaps as much as 90% of the corruption comes from the Islamic parties.
But a few years ago, you ran as a deputy for Muqtada al-Sadr’s party (ed. note – a Shiite cleric, one of the most powerful figures in the country since 2003, controls the Mahdi Army – among the most powerful militias in the country)…
No, no. You’re confused. Then we were in a coalition with independent parties – liberals, communists, leftist parties, Sunnis and Shiites. I was an independent candidate. At that time, we did not know that Muqtada al-Sadr was with us. I don’t know when and how they decided it, but at some point it became known that his party was also part of the coalition, which surprised many people, including me.
When you say corruption is in all parties, does that include his?
Yes, as well as in the parties of Nouri al-Maliki (ed. – former Prime Minister of Iraq from the Shiite “Islamic Dawa Party”) , Ammar al-Hakim (ed. – pro-Iranian Shiite cleric and politician, part of the “National Movement for Wisdom” coalition, formerly the “Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq”) . But Sadr at least has some useful views. When a member of his party is found guilty of corruption – he is expelled from the party.
How would you comment on the state within the state that he created – his own militia (Mahdi Army), his own territory (Sadr City, densely populated suburbs in Baghdad) etc.
No, Sadr City is not his personal domain. It was organized by his father, a great man, I should note. All Iraqis like him. After 2003, people said they were going to turn the capital from a City of Revolution (ed. – as the district was formerly known) into Sadr City. Not in the name of Muqtada.
His father – Mohammed-Sadiq al-Sadr – was a major religious figure. A supreme ayatollah who was killed with two of his sons in Najaf. He established the City of Sadr and his son is in control, but that doesn’t mean he’s unchallenged. But it is true that Muqtada al-Sadr orders a frighteningly large number of people who can flood the streets at a moment’s notice to protest or vote as he orders.
On several occasions in recent years he has used his militia to exert pressure. Is that right?
You know, I’m an independent. I have no preference for anyone. But it is true that he is the only one who is standing up against Iran’s influence in the country. The parties of Al-Maliki, Al-Hakim, etc. are led by Iran. This is very important to me. Our party cannot follow the interests of another country. Sadr opposes this and I can say that it is the main element that distinguishes it from other parties in a positive way. He is the only one who is fighting Iranian influence. If he starts supporting Iran, I will turn against him as well.
If I were in Baghdad, not knowing where I was, and I looked around, I would think I were in Iran. The entire capital, and not only, is flooded with posters and billboards of Qassem Soleimani, Iranian warlords and even Hezbollah. I have been to Iran three times so far and have nowhere seen as many posters of his face as here. Is the situation that dire?
Our politicians want to prove how loyal they are to Iran. This is all a demonstration. They say, ‘We will follow you anywhere, we are your dogs’. The prime minister and his party are the same commodity as al-Maliki and Ibrahim al-Jaafari (ed. – former prime minister of Iraq), and the current Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, and many others. They play an interesting game, jumping on a rope that is held at one end by the Americans and at the other by the Iranians. When they meet the Iranians, they promise them that they are with them. When they go to the Americans, they pledge allegiance to them.
To get power, money and control over the people. When Qassem Soleimani used to come to our country, he used to distribute the posts. You take 5 ministries, you take 2 and even prime minister posts, as long as they fulfilled his conditions. Then he left until the next election.
Americans are no better. They control Iraq’s economy, finances and oil. I will give you an example of what I am talking about. The tiger is a dangerous animal. If you put him in a big cage with other animals – cats, dogs, wolves and foxes – he will be the strongest and exercise power over all the others. But this power will happen in the cage. Not outside it. Because he himself is in a prison built by someone else.
In this sense, Iraqi politicians follow and listen to Iran, but only at the national level. Internationally, they comply with the cage that is America. Domestically, you can play the Iran card all you want and be the tiger.
Is the Democratic Party or the Republican Party in the States better for Iraq?
It’s like choosing between the gallows and the firing squad. In the end, the result is the same.
Will there be another war in Iraq?
Maybe. Why did the war with al-Qaeda and the militias happen? Because all the parties listed so far have plunged the country into corruption. And the people revolted. That’s how ISIS was created.
Didn’t the United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also have a hand in this?
I was not a direct witness, but as a journalist and someone who lived through the wars, I can tell you for certain that al-Qaeda and subsequently ISIS were pawns of the US. Are we forgetting that Washington created al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union? But in the end the creation grew too much and attacked its master. Then it arrived here.
What is the greatest threat to security in the Middle East?
If you talk to the Shiites – they say Saudi Arabia. The Sunnis say Iran. The Kurds say Turkey. Everybody says whatever they want. The fact is that all the countries around us want to control us. Even little Jordan often finds itself in a strong position because it controls some Sunni parties in parliament.
Let us go back to 2008 and that famous moment. When and how did you decide to drop the shoe?
Before the invasion of Iraq, George W. Bush said in a press conference that the Iraqi people would welcome the Americans with flowers. That the people would join the American military. That was a big lie.
After the 2003 occupation, the Iraqis began to fight. Resistance grew by the day. But the Americans and their puppets in the government said only one thing: the Iraqi people welcomed the occupation with flowers. I wondered how to do anything against this idea. To show the world that we did not welcome them with flowers. We met them with shoes. In our culture, a shoe is the worst possible insult because you step on all kinds of junk and stuff with it. It’s the worst way to welcome someone into your home.
The statue of a shoe thrown at Bush, at his unveiling in Tikrit. It was removed by the authorities a few days later.
Do you keep the shoes as a memento?
No, the US authorities cut them up and burned them. They were worried that the shoes would become an icon. So they took them, cut them up and burned them.
There was also a statue in Tikrit, if I’m not mistaken?
That’s right. It was unveiled in 2009, but after a few days the government destroyed it.
What happened after you threw the shoes?
A lot of things. First of all, they beat me up. They broke my nose, tooth and thumb. Then they took me to a very small cell where they tortured me with electricity… I want to be clear – the Iraqi people supported me. But the PM’s security people – who were all Al-Maliki’s nephews and cousins – were against me and tortured me. But the soldiers in prison supported me. Outside the Green Zone (ed. – a central part of Baghdad that houses government buildings and embassies, cordoned off for access) people protested in my defence. The Prime Minister’s guards had received training from the US army. They were like bloodhounds.
You were kidnapped as well.
More than once. My work with the victims of the war raised the ire of many people – the government, the Americans, the militias. In 2007-2008, the Americans came to us and arrested me. Al-Qaeda in 2006, too.
I have no proof who exactly kidnapped me, but I think it was the government. They held me for 3-4 days asking me about my work, why I was writing on certain topics, why I was talking to terrorists. What terrorists in Iraq at the time, I asked? When I go into a destroyed building and talk to the victims – were they terrorists? The women, children and elderly that the Americans killed or dispossessed?
Sometimes they would come to my house, other times they would send a message to a colleague – that I should be careful, not to deal with a certain subject, that it was dangerous for me. But I didn’t care. I was a correspondent for foreign media and signed “from occupied Baghdad.” This angered the Iraqi government and the Americans. “No, we didn’t occupy you…” they said. The UN claimed just the opposite. Do you remember Sergio Viera de Milo? He was the UN special envoy to Iraq. I met him a few days before he was killed by al-Qaeda on August 19, 2003, and he was adamant that this was an occupation.
Are you now occupied?
Yes, of course. More than ever. The Americans have occupied the world. Our government is occupied by the US and Iran. In turn, the government is occupying the people.
What is the future of Iraq?
Black, if the same people retain power over the country. Islamist parties are a huge threat to the country. Them and their militias. All the corruption stems from them. We are among the most corrupt and dangerous countries in the world according to many rankings. We see it on the ground. Total disregard for human rights. I am involved in Tishreen (ed – the largest social and human rights movement in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East) and I can tell you that I have experienced it first hand.
7 times different militias tried to kill me. They shot at me. Iran’s militias in Iraq said I was against them because I was getting support from the US government. The embassy claimed the opposite – that I was an Iranian man. And I am against both the Americans and the Iranians. Against their policies, not nations. I have many American and Iranian friends, I am not against the people, I am against the governments.
Is there free media in Iraq?
There is not a single free media outlet. Now everybody in Iraq is pulling to work with me because I am against everybody and they are afraid of hurting somebody’s interest. I work with foreign organizations and media. I had the opportunity to leave, but I didn’t ask. I was approached by several foreign media, including you, for an interview on the 20th anniversary of the Iraq war that started in 2003. No Iraqi media sought me out. No Iraqi media noted the date at all. Complete silence. It’s a shame.
Kaloyan Konstantinov with Muntader al-Zaidi at his home in Baghdad.
Is the US preparing for war with Iran or another country in the region?
They don’t want war. They don’t want peace. They want something in the middle. You know Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” I guess? Now the situation is “No war and no peace”. Instability is their goal.
Do you expect another civil war in Iraq?
In the future, there might be a war not between Sunnis and Shiites – but between Shiites and Shiites, Sunnis and Sunnis, Kurds against Kurds. But for now, I do not expect anything like that.
If at this point George W. Bush knocks on your door – will you attack him with your shoe again?
If he comes to my house – no. I won’t do anything to him. In our culture, when your enemy comes as a guest, you have to defend and respect him. That is your moral duty. Our religion, culture and tradition require us to respect the enemy in our home. But when he leaves… that’s another matter. I want us to be clear about one thing: George W. Bush. Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, etc – should be in prison.
A few days ago Putin was indicted by the International Court in The Hague. Fine! And why isn’t Bush facing the Hague? Aren’t we Iraqis a people? Don’t our lives have value? I’m just fighting for justice for my people.
This article was originally published in Bulgarian at the site KlinKlin and is part of a series of articles by Kaloyan Konstantinov. All photos were taken by the author.