“This is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, dog!” shouts journalist Muntadhar Al Zaidi while throwing one of his shoes at George Bush’s head. He quickly bends down again to pick up the other one and repeats the throw, which the US president dodges with agility. “This is for the widows, orphans and those murdered in Iraq!” screams the journalist, already blocked and lying on the ground.
Bush, who had already lost the elections against Barack Obama and was living his last days in the White House, reacted with laughter. “If you want the facts, it was a size 10 shoe,” he joked. “This is what happens in free societies […] “I don’t know what his motivation is,” he added. Al Zaidi did know and, 15 years later, he has no regrets and still feels anger.
“I am angry because this man killed my people and now he is free, and he has not been held accountable 20 years after these crimes,” he tells elDiario.es in a telephone conversation. “I wanted to show Bush that we did not welcome the occupation with roses, as he said, but with shoes.” The Iraq war left between 281,000 and 315,000 dead, most of them civilians, according to data from the Costs of War project at Brown University.
It wasn’t an outburst of anger, but it was perfectly planned. Al Zaidi had been imagining his action for months and even that day he put on shoes without laces so he could take them off more quickly and, if he missed the first shot, he would have a second chance. Once inside the room, the journalist took off the ring and gave it, along with the rest of his belongings, to his camera.
“The highest level of contempt towards a person in our Arab culture is throwing a shoe at them,” says Al Zaidi. This Thursday marks 15 years since that scene that occurred during a press conference in Baghdad, in which the president of the United States, George W. Bush, and the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al Maliki, appeared after the signing of an agreement withdrawal of troops after years of occupation.
After throwing him to the ground, the security hit Al Zaidi, breaking his tooth and leaving blood marks on the ground. The journalist was sentenced to three years in prison for attacking a foreign head of state, but he served nine months because he had no criminal record.
That launch changed his life forever and he reports that since then he has not found work as a journalist in Iraq. “I am looking for work as a journalist. That had great consequences and now, for 15 years, I have been fighting with many media outlets for what I did,” he says. “Most television channels are supported or allied with corrupt politicians,” she adds.
His television channel then publicly defended him and asked the authorities for his release, but he assures that they did it “for fame.” “When I came out of prison and created an organization to help victims of the US occupation and filed a complaint against war criminals, the channel arbitrarily fired me,” he says.
His compatriots still remember Al Zaidi well. “They treat it with humor. When they see me, they ask me if I still have my shoes on and who will be next.” In the city of Tikrit they erected a three-meter statue of a shoe in his honor, but the authorities ordered its removal.
After leaving prison, Al Zaidi went to Lebanon, where he worked for Al Mayadeen television (affiliated with the Shiite group Hezbollah) and returned during the 2011 protests. “The government detained me and put me in prison again for three days. I couldn’t do anything with Al Maliki’s regime, so I returned to Beirut,” he says.
Al Zaidi stayed in Lebanon until he made the decision to run for election to the Iraqi Parliament in 2018 as a member of the movement led by the Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr, which was the most voted force. He, however, was not elected. His campaign focused on fighting corruption and sectarianism.
During the US invasion, Sadr created a Shiite militia to combat the occupation and the US described him as the main security threat in Iraq. He later championed the nationalist discourse and the fight against corruption and foreign interference.
Now, five years after those elections, Zaidi has founded an association that supports the suspension of the local elections that will be held on December 18. “I did it to fight against the political system and local elections, which are the root of that corruption. Its celebration or non-celebration does not change anything. On the contrary, we work to hold demonstrations against these elections, from which the corrupt will benefit.”