IRAQ: Journalist who hurled shoes at President Bush says stunt had been carefully planned
When Iraqi journalist Muntather Zaidi stood up from his seat and hurled his shoes at then-U.S. President George W. Bush during a December 2008 news conference in Baghdad, shouting "dog" at him, he was hailed as a hero by many in the Arab world and left many others stunned by what appeared to be a spontaneous act of anger.
But in an exclusive interview with Babylon & Beyond, Zaidi said the stunt was something he had carefully planned for years.
"I had decided on it a while ago," Zaidi told the blog during a recent interview in Beirut.
"This is new information that hasn't been told before," he said. "I was just waiting for the right opportunity. I was checking every visit that he [Bush] made so I could bring the Iraqi people's justice upon him. I left my will at my brother's house and told him to open it if I die. I recorded a five-minute long tape four years ago in which I say that I will hit George Bush with a shoe as soon as I get the opportunity. I left it with my brother telling him that, 'If I die, you bring it up and expose it to the world.'"
Iraq's central criminal court sentenced Zaidi to three years in prison for assaulting a visiting head of state, but the judiciary later shortened his sentence to one year. A few months after that ruling, the judiciary ordered that he be freed. Since his release in September 2009, Zaidi has put his journalistic career on hold and instead has engaged himself in humanitarian work by setting up the Al Zaidi Foundation, a human rights organization for Iraqi civilians affected by the war.
Dividing his time between Switzerland and Lebanon, he also keeps busy by giving lectures in Europe and the Middle East on the situation in Iraq and lobbying actively for Bush to be indicted on war crimes charges for the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
What happened on the day of the news conference?
I went over the bridge in Baghdad and watched the Tigris river and the sun. I said goodbye to the river I love so much and was thinking that this could be last time I see the sunset. I was boiling when he [Bush] came into the room. I saw his red face from all the blood of the Iraqis who had perished. Like a vampire. He had eyes like Dracula. I had made sure to put on old and worn-out shoes to show the worth of him. I told him [Bush] 'this is the goodbye kiss.' Everybody was shocked, even the security, which didn't come until I threw the second shoe. After the second [shoe], they all came and attacked me.
Do you still have the shoes?
The American and Iraqi governments tore the shoes apart so that they wouldn't become a symbol.
What was it like in detention and prison after the shoe throwing? You say you were tortured.
I was in the central intelligence prison in Baghdad. I was in a cell for three months. The treatment was not good. They did not allow me to mention my name to anyone in there or to speak to anyone. My brother was only allowed to visit me once and it was for 15 minutes. They wanted to show that I wasn't dead because I was tortured in there. There was a lot of torture ... electricity and whipping and such things and also breaking tables on my back. They were crazy. My teeth were broken, my nose was broken and one of my legs. I'm still being treated. In fact, I have treatment today after our interview. They insulted me and cursed at me, saying that everyone gave up on me and that everybody is criticizing me. I said that I don't care about it and that I did what I wanted to do. I don't care, kill me. I delivered a message to the whole world that Iraqis did not welcome the occupation with flowers.
Would you feel safe in Iraq today?
I didn't go back yet, but I am not scared. However, every time I talk to my friends back in Iraq they say, "Your presence here will expose you to danger -- if not from the government, then from the opposition. They will kill you and say that the government did it."
Secondly, what I can do in Iraq? I can just sit there and have people come and tell me bravo and thank me for what I did, while outside Iraq I am conveying the image of Iraq and the Iraqis from the inside ... telling people about the killings that are taking place.
Have you received any threats?Of course. A lot. Not by e-mail but from these sectarian sites and forums. They wrote articles about why I should be killed.
What's your work like at the moment?
I'm doing humanitarian work, giving lectures at universities and institutions and for political parties and human rights groups. I explain to them the situation in Iraq, the violations of the troops in Iraq, the corruption, and the situation of journalists. I also established the Al Zaidi Foundation to help the victims of the American occupation in Iraq. A part of the work of this foundation is to bring to justice the criminals of war and to expose the policies of the Americans and the parties in Iraq who were aligned with them. This is part of my lectures, to expose these policies. I hold a lot of lectures in universities both in the Arab world and Europe. Last week, I lectured at a conference on investigative journalism in Geneva on press freedom in Iraq.
How is the situation of the media in Iraq?
It's not good. There are dictatorships in addition to the occupation, and because of that there are no freedoms.
Do you see yourself as a hero for what you did?
There were a lot of people who called me an Arab hero, but I don’t see myself that way. This was bound to happen. You know, there was a man from an American organization who told me that, 'You're not only a hero in the Arab world but also in America because these people who tortured you don't represent the people but the Iraqi authorities.' These people consider the person who can lower his head for the Americans the most a hero. The hero is the one who gains the trust of the Americans. They make him a minister or a [member of parliament] or something else. So they find it strange and shocking to speak about patriotism, heroism and against the occupation. Even if the occupation brought me the Holy Grail, I wouldn't want it. No man can live without his freedom. It's impossible.
What are your plans for the future?
I want to continue the path that I am on to show the real image of the Iraqi people -- that they did not accept the occupation and that they resisted it from Day One. My ambition is to collect signatures from Iraqis and lawyers to take Bush to the International Criminal Court. If no person is above the law, then George [Bush] will be prosecuted. He is responsible for many deaths. His army killed a million people in Iraq.
Do you ever see yourself going back to Iraq?
Of course. I'm just waiting for the situation to settle down a bit. But I will not be comfortable until my country is freed from occupation. I don't expect people to stand by me or anything from anyone. As long as the message from the Iraqi people was delivered, I am satisfied.
-- Aexandra Sandels in Beirut
Top photo: Muntather Zaidi at a cafe in Beirut earlier this month. Credit: Alexandra Sandels / Los Angeles Times. Video and middle photo: Zaidi was hailed as an Arab hero by many in the Middle East when he threw his shoes at then-U.S. President George W. Bush at a news conference in Baghdad in December 2008. Credit: YouTube