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"One of the great things about this country is our ability to express our opinion," Watkins told the two-dozen or so folks who crammed their way into a hotel conference room to witness the meeting. "That said, I'm doggone happy to present to you a man who's a hero in Iraq and here."
Samir strode confidently to the podium, dapperly attired in the English-cut suit and red-and-white tie he wears only for such events as this. He proceeded to recite a G-rated version of what is by now a well-rehearsed story and concluded his speech by expressing heartfelt regret that he would be unable to attend the team's home opener. Samir had been scheduled to be the special guest during a halftime performance titled "Honor America."
With misty brown eyes, he told the crowd: "I won't be here, but my heart will be."
Samir's friends say that away from the media spotlight, he's changed little since the night of December 13, 2003. He still wears his everyday uniform, a black tracksuit and Air Jordan sneakers, and works out daily at Bally's in Clayton. And he's more than willing to provide free auto service to friends.
Samir is quick to anger when people dismiss the necessity of the U.S. invasion of Iraq -- or, even worse, when they question the validity of Saddam's capture.
Such was the case early last month when United Press International ran a story debunking the public version of Saddam's capture. Based on an interview a former U.S. Marine gave to a Saudi newspaper, the article, which received scant attention, said Saddam was apprehended a day earlier than the official reported date of Saturday, December 13, and surrendered only after an intense firefight.
The ex-Marine, Nadim Abou Rabeh, of Lebanese descent, also said Saddam was not taken from the clutches of the spider hole but found in a modest home in a small village. Nadim claimed, too, that a military production team later fabricated the film of Saddam removed from the hole.
"People will believe what they want to believe," scoffs Samir, who heard the story but paid it no mind. "I was there. I know what happened."
Samir says that the night he took down Saddam has led him to pursue a higher purpose in life. He recently turned down a friend's offer of $60,000 a year to run his auto shop.
"I want to do something bigger than my old job," he says. "My life has changed big time because of Saddam and because of the war. I want to continue to be part of this."
Late last month Samir returned to Iraq for the third time since the fall of Saddam's regime. This time he's working not as a interpreter but as a political and cultural consultant in the U.S. government's rebuilding efforts. The job can earn Samir in excess of $100,000 a year, though he says he'd do it for half as much.
As to the risks of arbitrary suicide bombings, Samir says he'd rather die in Iraq than here in a car accident or from a heart attack.
"Everyone dies one day," he muses. "Dying with honor is better than dying with nothing. At least you're going to be remembered."
Such bravado hardly surprises Mohammad Al-Baaj, who says his friend has never been lacking in confidence.
"He told me that maybe now he'll capture Osama Bin Laden," cracks Mohammad. "I'm just jealous that I wasn't there when he captured Saddam -- to smack him around and say bad things to him. Can you imagine? I guarantee you Saddam will never forget that experience. He'll never forget Samir."
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