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Iraq: 'Shoe Banger' Who Proclaimed Saddam's Downfall Still Waits For Normalcy

Abu Tahsin in the Al-Arabiyah images that transfixed the Arab world on April 9, 2003 (Public domain) Five years ago, with U.S. and allied forces continuing their rapid advance across Iraq, many Western viewers regarded the toppling of a statue of feared dictator Saddam Hussein in downtown Baghdad as a symbol of his regime's collapse.

Eight hours earlier, however, the Dubai-based Al-Arabiyah satellite television channel had broadcast images across the Arab world of 47-year-old Iraqi Abu Tahsin striking a portrait of Saddam Hussein with his shoe and declaring that freedom had arrived in Baghdad. The footage was broadcast repeatedly by the satellite station for much of the day.

This moment "was presented as the first proclamation [from an ordinary Iraqi] that the regime of Saddam Hussein had collapsed," Tahsin says in an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq. "Although this stance lasted just a few seconds, it has come to represent the attitude of an Iraqi human being -- a person who announced the good news to Iraqis."

Now, Tahsin says, he is still waiting for life to return to some kind of normalcy for his family. He had to flee his Baghdad home with his wife because of the sectarian violence that has plagued the Iraqi capital in recent years. The couple now lives with seven relatives in northeastern Iraq -- the Iraqi Kurdish city of Al-Sulaymaniyah -- where he works as a public-relations manager for the Al-Fayha satellite television station.

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"The pain and the gloom within myself pushed me to rise up against that scathing reality [of Saddam Hussein's regime]," Tahsin says of the thoughts running through his head as he struck Hussein's portrait with his shoe that morning in 2003.

He says it took time for him to grasp the historic significance of his televised rant long before the rest of the world watched live footage of Hussein's huge statue being toppled at Baghdad's Firdus Square.

Saddam's Legacy

One event that brought home to Tahsin the broader significance of his outburst was an offer from a Kuwaiti businessman to buy the shoe that he used to strike Hussein's portrait.

Communicated through Iraqi contacts in the southern Iraqi port city of Al-Basrah, Tahsin says the Kuwaiti businessman offered him about $250,000 for the shoe. And he says he was told he could get more money if he agreed to visit Kuwait for public-speaking engagements.

But Tahsin says he turned the money down because he wants to donate the shoe to a museum in Iraq that honors victims of Hussein's regime. That museum is now under construction in the northern city of Halabjah -- where thousands of Iraqi Kurdish civilians where killed by a chemical attack in 1988 by the Hussein regime.

"The most important thing is that an enormous boulder was removed that had been resting on the chests of Iraqis," Tahsin says.

A communist and avowed political opponent of Hussein, Tahsin says his first reaction to the fall of the regime had been to search for friends -- or information about friends imprisoned, tortured, or perhaps executed by Hussein's son, Uday.

At about 11 a.m. on April 9, 2003, Tahsin went to the Baghdad headquarters of Iraq's Olympic Committee, which, along with the regime's highest security apparatus, was run by Uday. Many people had been detained at committee headquarters, and Tahsin hoped to learn something about his missing friends.

No Regrets

When Tahsin failed to find traces of any of them, he took a huge portrait of Saddam Hussein from the building into the street. That was when he was filmed by Al-Arabiyah cameramen striking the portrait with his shoe, a sign of extreme disrespect across the Arab world.

"Hey people! Hey people! Freedom is here!" Tahsin told the camera. "This is who you have been suppressed by. This person was terrorizing us. This is your place. And this person has killed our youngsters -- has killed our sons."

Tahsin says that even with the violence and myriad of other problems that Iraq continues to suffer today, he has no regrets about the ousting of Saddam Hussein. And he says he is still dreaming about a better future for Iraq.

"Regarding what is happening [now], I believe that we expect such things in every revolution or changing process all around the world," Tahsin says. "I am one of the displaced people with a displaced family. I am not the only person who is dreaming of going back to Baghdad. All are wishing to do so. Baghdad is a sweet, lovely city. And despite its tragedy and what is happening within the city, it is still sweet."

Contributors to this story include Radio Free Iraq's Kefah Abbas in Prague and Ahmad al-Zubaidi in Al-Sulaymaniyah, who interviewed Tahsin

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