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In a south-city Saint Louis Bread Co., a young auto mechanic named Samir puts down his coffee long enough to carefully eye the other patrons. Assured no one is paying him any mind, he lowers his voice to a guttural whisper, fidgets with the zipper on his black tracksuit and rubs his grease-stained fingers along a finely manicured goatee. Then, in a syncopated rhythm of street slang and accented English, he transports himself back in time to a bitter-cold December night in Iraq.
It had to have been the most sublime moment of his life. Samir tells how he arrived in Tikrit as an Arabic interpreter for United States Special Forces in late 2003, how he peered into a hidden bunker and heard a voice begging for mercy, how he reached into the darkness and pulled out Saddam Hussein.
"I was so angry," says Samir, who immigrated to St. Louis eleven years ago after fleeing Iraq. "I began cussing at him, calling him a motherfucker, a son-of-a-bitch -- you name it. I told him I was Shiite from the south and was part of the revolution against him in 1991. I said he murdered my uncles and cousins. He imprisoned my father.
"All these years of anger, I couldn't stop. I tried to say the worst things I could. I told him if he were a real man he would have killed himself. I asked him: 'Why are you living in that dirty little hole, you bastard? You are a rat. Your father is a rat.'"
In Arabic, Saddam told Samir to shut up. And when Saddam called him a traitor, an enraged Samir silenced his prisoner with a flurry of quick jabs to the face.
"I punched Saddam in the mouth."
Samir's extravagant story is difficult to believe -- until he pulls out his laptop computer and rifles through the dozens of photographs he shot that night. There's the photo of Samir posed next to the bodyguard who will ultimately lead U.S. forces to Saddam. There's the photo of Samir standing behind the stack of $12 million in U.S. currency seized near Saddam's hideout. And there's the most riveting image of all: Samir kneeling behind the bruised and bloodied dictator just minutes after his inglorious capture.
"I would die for this picture," Samir says. "Without this photo, no one would believe me."
It's largely because of the photos that Samir insists his last name not be used for this article. He's afraid that extremists loyal to Saddam, or opposed to the U.S. invasion, will retaliate against him or members of his family who continue to live in Iraq.
But more than that, Samir's anonymity as a 34-year-old civilian contractor free from military censor enables him to openly discuss the spellbinding saga. His version is far more real-to-life than the "official" Pentagon account.
The high drama began to unfold around noon on Saturday, December 13, 2003, when Special Forces delivered one of Saddam's bodyguards to a U.S.-controlled palace outside Tikrit.
Intelligence officials had long viewed the bodyguard as a crucial linchpin in finding the tyrant. In a room deep within the palace, the officials and Samir went to work interrogating Saddam's protector.
"At first he lied to us; he said he didn't know anything," recalls Samir, who questioned the bodyguard in a plush recliner called the "Baath Chair" -- nicknamed for its role in interrogating members of Saddam's Baath Party.
"We made threats to him. Routine stuff, saying we would beat him. Finally, after a couple of hours, he said he knew. Saddam was on a farm."
Army soldiers had searched the small farm outside Tikrit twice before and failed to find any evidence of Saddam being there. Compelled to follow up on the tip, Samir, the bodyguard and several intelligence officers piled into a van and headed out for the hunt.
"He told us that the farmers on the land were serving as lookouts, so we didn't want to get too close," Samir says.
From a distance, the bodyguard-turned-informant pointed out the two-room farmhouse. He said Saddam was living in it and told of an underground bunker where the dictator might hide.
The reconnaissance complete, the group returned to the palace. By nightfall a brigade of some 600 soldiers from the U.S. Army's Fourth Infantry Division was in place, along with an armada of eight support helicopters flown in from Baghdad. The raid was imminent.
At 6:30 p.m. the brigade pulled out of the palace with Samir and the bodyguard riding in the lead Humvee. To keep warm, Samir wore a black stocking cap decorated with a St. Louis Rams insignia. So as not to draw attention, none of the vehicles in the convoy turned on its headlights. But even with the aid of night-vision goggles, it was tough going.
"It was so hard to see, and the bodyguard kept pointing us down the wrong dirt roads," Samir recalls. "I was yelling at him and slapping him. I don't think he was trying to get us lost, but we were getting frustrated."
When they arrived at the farm, soldiers quickly detained two of the three farmers who had served as lookouts for Saddam; the third one was never found.