Two decades after the U.S. led the invasion of Iraq, one of the most memorable moments for many in the region remains the 2008 news conference in Baghdad when an Iraqi journalist stood up and hurled his shoes at then-U.S. President George W. Bush. As the U.S. leader spoke alongside Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, he was forced to duck the flying shoes as the journalist shouted: “This is a farewell kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog!”
The man was quickly pounced on by security forces and removed from the room, and says he was subsequently jailed and beaten for his actions.
“The only regret I have is that I only had two shoes,” Muntazer al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who expressed the feelings of many Iraqis at the time, told CBS News on Monday, exactly 20 years after the beginning of the U.S.’s campaign of “shock and awe.”
Then-President Bush’s administration justified its decision to attack the Iraqi regime headed by Saddam Hussein with assertions that the dictator was hiding chemical or biological “weapons of mass destruction,” but no such weapons were ever found.
Al-Zaidi says he didn’t throw his shoes in a moment of uncontrolled anger, but that he had actually been waiting for just such an opportunity since the beginning of the U.S.-led invasion. He said Bush had suggested that the Iraqi people would welcome U.S. forces with flowers, which left him looking for an adequate reply.
“I was looking for the opposite and equal reaction to say that Iraqis don’t receive occupiers with flowers,” the journalist told CBS News, adding that he staged his protest to oppose “this arrogant killer, and out of loyalty to the Iraqi martyrs killed by American occupation soldiers.”
Sentenced to three years in prison, al-Zaidi was seen by many Iraqis as a national hero, and he served only nine months of his sentence.
He says he was beaten and tortured for three days following his arrest by Iraqi officers, who he claims sent photos of himself blindfolded to the Americans. He says three months of his jail term were spent in solitary confinement as he suffered medical problems.
“Back then, in the midst of being tortured for three days, there was a rumor that I had apologized. I told the investigator I did not apologize, and if time was rewound I would do it all over again,” he told CBS News. “Even knowing what I would go through, still I would stand up and throw my shoes at him.”
Al-Zaidi said the anxious wait for the expected invasion before March 20, 2003, left Iraqis on edge, with stockpiling food and others fleeing major cites for smaller towns far from Baghdad, fearing American bombs.
“People were like, semi-dead, like zombies, walking as if they were in a different world,” al-Zaidi recalled. “Then the zero-hour came. Most if not all Iraqis were woken up by the sound of explosions.”
The journalist says some of Iraq’s infrastructure still hasn’t been repaired, and he blames the invasion for “political and financial corruption” and the current political gridlock in his country, where “every political party has its own armed faction or militia that kills and terrifies people, kills their opposition and assassinates protesters.”
Al-Zaidi is among the thousands of people who have joined protests since 2011 against Iraq’s Western backed government.
“We are trying to tell the world that the Iraqi people are being killed and ripped off,” he said. “We are suffering and we will continue to suffer, but the future of Iraq is in our hands and we want to remove this authority that ruled Iraq for the past 20 years.”