Peter Beaumont in Baghdad – The Observer, Saturday 9 March 2013
Saddam’s statue: the bitter regrets of Iraq’s sledgehammer man
Kadom al-Jabouri became famous when he took his hammer to the dictator’s statue. Now he wishes he had never done it
Ten years ago, Kadom al-Jabouri became the face of the fall of Baghdad. Pictured with a sledgehammer while attempting to demolish the huge statue of Saddam Hussein in the city’s Firdos Square, Jabouri’s jubilant act of destruction made front pages around the world.
For Tony Blair and President George W Bush, the image was a godsend, encapsulating the delight of a grateful nation that their hated dictator had been ousted. The US networks showed the statue’s fall for hours on end.
However, almost exactly a decade later, the “sledgehammer man” – who was helped by a US tank carrier to finally topple the statue – furiously regrets that afternoon and the symbolism of what he was involved in. “I hated Saddam,” the 52-year-old owner of a motorcycle spares shop told the Observer. “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 says, echoing a popular sentiment in a country mired in political problems and corruption, where killings still occur on an almost daily basis. “Nothing has changed for the better.”
What actually happened that day is still the subject of rival claims. A report in the Los Angeles Times in 2004 suggested that the toppling of the statue was stage-managed. Jabouri denies that. His claim is contested by the American 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 a first sergeant called Leon Lambert handed it to Iraqis who then took turns using it, Jabouri being the first of them.
These days Jabouri is still recognisable as the man from those images, the former champion power-lifter who spent 11 years in Abu Ghraib prison under Saddam. Despite his formidable physique, he could only break off chunks of concrete. Even with a rope supplied by the crew of the M-88, the crowd was still not strong enough to shift it. In the end it was the vehicle that pulled it down.
Asked why he had been in prison under Saddam, Jabouri answers only that his crime was “semi-political”. He has said in the past that he was sent to jail after complaining that Saddam’s son, Uday, had not paid him for fixing his motorbike. Eventually he was released in 1996.
Whatever his subsequent regrets, the day the statue came down remains etched in 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 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.”
The regrets began, he says, two years later under US occupation, which he loathed. 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, robberies and sectarian violence.”
He blames Iraq’s politicians and the Americans for what has happened to Iraq. “The Americans began it. And then with the politicians they destroyed the country. Nothing has changed. And things seem to get worse all the time. There’s no future. Not as long as the political parties running the country are in power,” he said.
The “saturation coverage” of the fall of Saddam’s statue – according to the most in-depth analysis by the New Yorker’s Peter Maass two years ago – “fuelled 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 reality, as seen by Jabouri and other Iraqis with the benefit of hindsight, is that the worst times were only beginning, not coming an end.