"I Punched Saddam in the Mouth"

Meet Samir, the St. Louis auto mechanic who pulled Saddam Hussein from his spider hole

Within a few weeks he was again in Iraq, but this time, instead of being stationed in the relatively docile south, Samir was assigned to the northern city of Tikrit, where elite U.S. forces were engaged in a massive manhunt to find Saddam Hussein.

Ten days after Saddam's capture, an Army officer burst into Samir's room, demanding his photos.

U.S. Army soldiers and Samir (in Rams hat) celebrate 
a successful mission.
U.S. Army soldiers and Samir (in Rams hat) celebrate a successful mission.
Samir (kneeling on the right) spent three years at a 
refugee camp in Saudi Arabia before coming to St. 
Louis in 1994.
Samir (kneeling on the right) spent three years at a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia before coming to St. Louis in 1994.

"He said officials at the Pentagon saw the photo with Saddam on the Internet and were pissed," recalls Samir.

It was months before the scandal of Abu Ghraib would break, but in hindsight Samir believes the military was doing some pre-emptive damage control. The picture of Samir gloating over Saddam could be seen as degrading, perhaps incriminating. A close inspection of the photo reveals blood on Saddam's lips where Samir's fists landed their mark.

"I begged him not to take the photos. I made a huge scene," recounts Samir. "But he took my laptop and erased everything. Even things that were in the trash can."

In reality, Samir's protests were merely illusory, for he had hidden away scores of copies of the photos, even going so far as to pass some along to fellow interpreters for safekeeping.

Today, military officials maintain they know of Samir's pictures but are unaware of any efforts to destroy the images.

"That may have happened to a certain extent on a local level, but it wasn't an objective here at Central Command," says Captain Alison Salerno, a public-affairs officer with the military's Tampa-based Central Command. "In a lot of situations the military frowns on so-called souvenir photos, and in this case the interpreter should've been instructed that private photos of a detainee that show their faces are not appropriate."

For his part, Samir is unapologetic.

"What were they going to do? Fire me? Send me home? Fine."

Samir remains adamant that he never released the pictures onto the Internet and speculates the leak might have come from Special Forces.

Within days of finding its way online, Samir's photo with Saddam was splashed across newspapers and televisions around the world. In Iraq, the news that the man who captured Saddam was an Iraqi made Samir's face -- if not his name -- a well-known image.

For months after returning to St. Louis, Samir kept a low profile. Few people outside the city's Iraqi community (estimated to be some 3,000 people) knew the identity of the man in the photo.

"I was scared to talk about it outside of my friends," says Samir. "I didn't know what might happen. In general, lots of people say they were happy about the capture of Saddam, but I know there are a lot of people out there who don't agree. They support Saddam or don't think the United States should be there."

It was only last summer -- after a friend with connections to the Missouri Republican Party arranged a meeting between Samir and President George W. Bush -- that Samir's story became public.

The meeting, held prior to Bush's campaign stop at the St. Charles Family Arena last July, lasted just a few minutes. Samir relayed to the president his story of capturing Saddam and presented him a gift of Iraqi beads signifying good luck. Bush told Samir he was immensely proud.

Samir's boss at the time, Nadir Malik, says Samir was back at work replacing a transmission just hours after meeting the president.

"It was unbelievable in a sense," recalls Malik. "I said, 'You just met the leader of the free world, and now you're covered in grease working on an engine?' But that's very much like Samir, he's pretty laid back."

Later, CNN and other outlets would grab the story. In January, a film crew from the cable network trailed Samir, Mohammad Al-Baaj and two other St. Louis residents of Iraqi descent as they drove Samir's green BMW 740 to Nashville to register to vote in the nation's first democratic elections in more than 50 years.

Followed to the polling station by the television cameras, Samir soon found himself surrounded by a crowd of Iraqi nationals.

"At first there were a dozen, then fifty," Samir says with a grin. "Soon there were probably a hundred people. It was amazing."

CNN led the story with the following teaser: "It's a world-famous photograph showing a man in military camouflage holding Saddam Hussein down on the ground. What you may not know is that the man actually lives in the St. Louis area. He was working with the U.S. military as a interpreter when American forces discovered Saddam's secret hiding place. Well, he ended being the first person to grab Saddam as he crawled out of his spider hole."

After learning that Samir wore a St. Louis Rams cap during Saddam's capture, the football team last season comped him several pairs of front-row tickets at the Edward Jones Dome.

More recently he was honored by the arena football franchise, River City Rage, which invited him to speak at a press conference last month announcing the team's new season and new ownership group.

Orchestrating the event was Ed Watkins, a slender man outfitted in a dark suit coat and a pair of wrinkled khakis. Watkins owned the franchise for the previous two seasons when it played under the pious moniker the Believers, and he was not about to hand off the team without a bit of last-minute pageantry.

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