By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
By Jake Rossen
By Lindsay Toler
A few days later, he boarded a military cargo plane for the remote desert camp of Rafha in north-central Saudi Arabia. Samir spent the next three and a half years in the sprawling tent city, which, in the year following the war, swelled to a population of more than 33,000 Iraqi refugees.
Samir describes his time at Rafha as intolerably boring and uncomfortable. Temperatures in the desert routinely rose to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, and blinding sandstorms blanketed everything in mounds of dirt and grime.
During his second year at the camp, Samir began receiving letters from his cousin Zeiad al-Hachami, one of the first Iraqi refugees to win asylum in the United States. Zeiad's letters from his new home in St. Louis convinced Samir that he wanted to resettle in America.
A few years later, when Samir was granted asylum, he told immigration officials he wanted to live in St. Louis. His first impression of the Gateway City might be well suited for the city's visitor-guide propaganda.
"I thought it was Heaven," says Samir. "Everything was so green and clean. Coming from the middle of the desert, it was a big deal. It was beautiful."
Samir didn't sleep a wink the night he unearthed Saddam. Long after the party, he lay in bed replaying the unforgettable mission over and over in his mind. He pulled his laptop to the corner of the bed and once again viewed the image of him posed behind the handcuffed despot. At 6 a.m. he placed a call to St. Louis.
Mohammad Al-Baaj took the call in his south St. Louis home. Mohammed and Samir's fathers are best friends in Iraq, and their children have known each other all their lives.
"He told me to turn on CNN," recounts Mohammad, a brawny and jovial man. Weeks after casting his ballot in the January Iraqi national election, Mohammad still wears the purple dye on his index finger that marks him as a voter.
"He said he did something amazing but couldn't tell me. I didn't know what to think. I watched CNN from nine o'clock till four in the morning -- nothing. Finally I'm going to bed around four a.m., and they say that Saddam Hussein had been captured.
"A few hours later, Samir called me back. I said, 'You my man! Tonight I'm going to throw a party for you even if you can't be here. I'm going to throw a party.'"
There were no parties for Samir when he first arrived in America in the spring of 1994. He landed in St. Louis with just six dollars in his pocket, and he could barely speak English. Since then he's gained a vast network of Iraqi and American friends, and parlayed his love of automobiles toward making a comfortable living.
"He is a darn good mechanic," enthuses Nadir Malik, general manager of the airport shuttle service TransExpress, who hired Samir as a driver in 2001, only to learn later on that he was also talented under the hood. "Samir could dissect a military tank and put it back together in the same day. He's that good."
While working for TransExpress in the first few months of 2003, Samir again became swept up in efforts to topple Saddam's regime. At the time, President George W. Bush delivered an ultimatum threatening war if the Iraqi government did not allow United Nations weapons inspectors access to the country.
It took but a few hours for Samir to ace a screening exam qualifying him as an Arabic/English interpreter for the U.S. military. Days later he received his first assignment: He was to report immediately to Kuwait.
On May 2, 2003, Bush landed on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln -- its tower adorned with a huge sign that read "Mission Accomplished" -- to announce an end to combat operations in Iraq.
Arriving in Kuwait, Samir worried he'd missed all the action and was told there would be little use for him now. Demanding to be reassigned, he was dispatched to Tallil Airbase in Iraq and given the job of interviewing civilians and interrogating prisoners.
After his plane touched down in the dead of night in the second week of May 2003, Samir learned that the airbase was just outside his hometown of Nasiriyah.
"The first thing I told my boss was that I was from Nasiriyah and hadn't been back since 1991," says Samir. "She freaked out. She could not believe it. She said, 'Tomorrow we will take you to find your family.'"
The next morning Samir hopped on a Humvee for the half-hour drive to his parents' home. The entire neighborhood, some 700 residents, poured into the streets to greet him.
"It was an awesome feeling," he says. "I felt like I was coming with the U.S. forces to free my family. It was the best feeling of my life."
Samir saw his parents often over the course of his six-month deployment in Nasiriyah, many times bringing with him soldiers from the airbase to share in meals and family celebrations. When his contract lapsed in October 2003, Samir returned to the States and immediately signed up for a second tour.