EXCLUSIVE: Iraqi shoe-thrower promises to boot corruption out of politics as MP
"This is a farewell kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog!"
The line was heard around the world, as TV stations broadcast Muntazar al-Zaidi hurling his footwear at then-US President George Bush, who was giving a news conference alongside Iraqi leader Nouri al-Maliki.
The prime minister's guards soon apprehended him and he eventually spent nine months in jail, before leaving Iraq in 2009. But as a symbolic act of defiance against the US occupation of Iraq, which saw hundreds of thousands killed and the country plunged into corruption and ethno-religious chaos, the shoe-throwing incident made Zaidi famous worldwide.
Foreign governments hailed him as a hero, while one Arab business magazine ranked him as the third most powerful Arab in the world.
The incident was immortalised in satire, in print and on the stage, and even in online flash games.
Locals in northern Iraq's Tikrit sculpted a huge bronze statue in commemoration of the incident, which was pulled down not long after its completion:
Running for office
Now, with both feet planted firmly back in his shoes, he is running for parliament in elections set for 12 May.
In an exclusive interview with Middle East Eye, Zaidi explained his reasons for trying to enter the often chaotic world of Iraqi parliamentary politics.
“For the last 10 years, I have been writing about corruption and corrupted people. I have been trying to expose public theft and I couldn’t change anything on the ground," he said, speaking by phone during a hectic day of campaigning.
I threw the shoes in order to show the world that the Iraqis did not welcome the American occupation with joy and rice
- Muntazir al-Zaidi
"So I decided to go into politics to work from within the system to issue new laws and regulations, and to expose corrupt politicians and officials. This is the reason I decided to run now for parliament."
Zaidi is running as a candidate for the Sairoun Alliance, a coalition headed by the influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in alliance with the Iraqi Communist Party.
The coalition has corruption and sectarianism in its crosshairs - Sadr and his allies have repeatedly said that Iraqis need to stop voting along sectarian or ethnic lines and start focusing on the country's massive social and economic problems.
Zaidi said he "couldn’t find better" than the group, who he said, "represents all Iraqi sects and social strata."
"[Sadr] is an impressive figure that managed to make himself known in Iraq - he is against the corrupt Shia parties and is at the same time a representative of all Iraqis."
A poll commissioned by the 1001 Iraqi Thoughts website and published on Tuesday suggested the Sairoun Alliance could end up the second-largest party in parliament, beating the Fatah Coalition - comprised of Iran-backed Shia fighters - and coming second to the Nasr Coalition headed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
With Iraq still reeling from a devastating war with the Islamic State group (IS), and with the country ranked 169th out 180 in Transparency International's corruption perception index, Zaidi and his allies have their work cut out.
"The biggest problem is Iraq's budget. It is empty due to many reasons - one of them is corruption," explained Zaidi.
"Second is lousy planning for public projects and infrastructure. Also the huge rate of unemployment, where you find thousands of graduates who are engineers and lawyers but who are working as taxi drivers and in restaurants."
Equally important to Zaidi, Sadr and the Sairoun Alliance is the issue of foreign intervention. Unlike most political actors in Iraq, they are as adamantly opposed to American influence in their country as they are to Iranian influence.
Sadr's antagonism of the Americans went several steps beyond shoe-throwing - his Mahdi Army declared open war on the US presence in Iraq and engaged in fierce fighting with both American troops and the Iraqi interim government's security services.
Similarly, Iranian officials have made no secret of their contempt for Sadr and his allies - contempt that was likely exacerbated by Sadr's decision to meet with their arch-nemesis Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince of Saudi Arabia.
Speaking at an event alongside Zaidi's old bete noir Maliki, Ali Velayati, chief adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, warned that “the Islamic awakening will not allow the return of communists and liberals to power", in a nod to Sadr's coalition partners.
Aside from Abadi's coalition, which is widely expected to win by some margin, the Fatah Coalition is the Sairoun Alliance's primary rival. Symbolically, considering the latter's anti-Iran sentiments, the Fatah Coalition is arguably Iran's staunchest ally in Iraq. Rahim al-Daraji, a senior member of Fatah, even suggested that if his coalition were to win it would bring Iraq into a "federal union" with Iran.
One of my missions going to the parliament is to set laws to protect journalists from oppression and guarantee their freedom of speech
- Muntazir al-Zaidi
Such sentiments rankle Zaidi, as does the reported presence of at least 9,000 US troops in the country.
"America and Iran are the reasons for the tension in Iraq," he said. "We have American troops under the name of 'consultants' - we don’t accept their presence in Iraq."
"I threw the shoes in order to show the world that the Iraqis did not welcome the American occupation with joy and rice," he added.
Prior to the shoe-throwing incident, Zaidi had been a TV journalist for the Al-Baghdadia TV channel, and the plight of journalists in Iraq - which he described as "unsafe" - is still something that resonates strongly with him.
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, private media in Iraq has exploded, with hundreds of TV and radio channels and newspapers of varying quality appearing and disappearing.
But Iraq is also reportedly the single deadliest country on Earth for journalists. Since 1990, more than twice as many journalists have been killed in Iraq as in the next most deadly country, the Philippines. In 2006 alone, 155 journalists were killed in Iraq, and while 2018 has so far been free of any fatalities (possibly due to the end of the war on IS), it is still a deeply dangerous profession in the country.
The problem, according to Zaidi, is that there are no "strong institutions to protect journalists, and there are no laws and regulations that regulate journalists' work and protect them at the same time."
This is something he plans to change.
"One of my missions going to the parliament is to set laws to protect journalists from oppression and guarantee their freedom of speech," he promised.
With many Iraqis hopeful that their country is finally emerging from decades of war and bloodshed into a new future of stability and accountability, a lot is riding on the outcome of May's poll and Zaidi is certain that he will be able to once more make an impact on the political landscape.
When asked whether he would throw his shoes at Bush and Maliki again, Zaidi laughed.
"Yes!" he said, emphatically.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.