A decade ago, Kadom al-Jabouri became the face of the fall of Baghdad. Pictured with a sledgehammer while attempting to demolish the huge statue of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in the city’s Firdos Square, al-Jabouri’s jubilant act of destruction made front pages around the world.
For former British prime minister Tony Blair and then-US president George W Bush, the image was a godsend, encapsulating the delight of a grateful nation that their hated leader had been ousted.
However, almost exactly a decade later, the “sledgehammer man” — who was helped by a US tank carrier to topple the statue — furiously regrets that afternoon and the symbolism of what he was involved in.
“I hated Saddam,” said the 52-year-old, who owns a motorcycle spare parts shop. “I dreamed for five years of bringing down that statue, but what has followed has been a bitter disappointment.”
“Then we had only one dictator. Now we have hundreds,” he said, echoing a popular sentiment in a country mired in political problems where killings occur almost daily.
Video from the time shows al-Jabouri that day, a huge bull of a man in a vest top with cropped hair, battering the statue’s concrete plinth with furious intensity.
What actually happened that day is still the subject of rival claims by those involved. A report in the Los Angeles Times in 2004 suggested the toppling of the statue was stage-managed. Al-Jabouri denies that. His claim is contested by the US soldiers involved, including the crew of the M-88 tank tow truck that eventually pulled the statue down.
Two years ago, they told the New Yorker that the hammer belonged to them and that US First Sergeant Leon Lambert gave it to Iraqis.
These days, al-Jabouri is still recognizable as the man from those images, the former champion power-lifter who spent 11 years in Abu Ghraib Prison under Saddam.
Despite his physique, he could only break off chunks of concrete. Even with a rope supplied by the crew of the M-88, the crowd still not could not shift it and in the end it was the vehicle that pulled it down.
Asked why he had been in prison under Saddam, al-Jabouri says only that his crime was “semi-political.”
Whatever his subsequent regrets, the day the statue came down remains etched on his memory:
“I was in my shop here on my own. It was around noon. I heard that the Americans were in the suburbs. I went to get my sledgehammer and headed to Firdos Square,” he said. “I’d had the idea in my mind of knocking down the statue so I went to do it. There were secret police still in the square and fedayeen [Saddam’s paramilitary forces]. They were watching what I was doing, but my friends surrounded me to protect me if they shot.”
“The Americans came 45 minutes later. The commander asked if I needed a hand and pulled it down. It was just me at first. Then 30 of us. Then 300. In the end there were thousands in the square. It was all about revenge for me, for what the regime had done to me, for the years I spent in prison,” al-Jabouri said.
The regrets began two years later under the US occupation and nothing since has changed his mind — not the end of the occupation nor the handover of control to Iraq.
“Under Saddam there was security. There was corruption, but nothing like this. Our lives were protected and many of the basics like electricity and gas were more affordable. After two years, I saw no progress. Then there came the killings, the robberies and the sectarian violence,” al-Jabouri said.
He blames Iraqi politicians and the US for what happened to Iraq.
The “saturation coverage” of the statue “fueled the perception that the war had been won and diverted attention from Iraq at precisely the moment that more attention was needed, not less,” the New Yorker’s Peter Maass wrote two years ago.