ST. LOUIS – Back in the Iraq he once fled, Samir couldn't see down the darkened hole enough to see who was hiding there.
Acting as a civilian translator for U.S. troops massed a few miles south of Tikrit, the Iraqi-American told the cowering man to surrender or die. Soldiers were ready to pitch a grenade into the pit when the man inside slowly thrust his hands into the light, giving up.
When he helped pull the man out, Samir gasped.
It was Saddam Hussein (search).
By his account, Samir greeted the deposed ruler — the man with a $25 million bounty on his head as then one of the world's most-wanted fugitives — with a few punches, kicks and profane insults.
"I wanted to say, `You did this all to us, and you still don't want to leave Iraq alone,'" said Samir, now living in St. Louis.
Requesting that his last name not be used, given fear of reprisals from Saddam loyalists or anti-American forces, Samir prizes that day like the beads he gave last month to a thankful President Bush.
"I feel so good, I feel so good," said Samir, 34.
Samir bolted Iraq in 1991, leaving behind four brothers, three sisters and his parents. He made his way to Saudi Arabia and lived in a refugee camp for more than three years before reaching American soil "like a dream come true."
He spoke no English, picking up the language while working for a boiler-galvanizing company and auto-repair shops. By March 2003, he heeded the call for civilian translators to be used overseas.
"I really wanted to be part of this," he said.
As he had hoped, Samir eventually got shipped to Iraq before being returned to the United States when his contract expired last fall. Samir quickly re-signed, insisting "I was wanting to go back there to help."
One of Saddam's family members provided the information that triggered the December raid that led Samir and some 600 troops to a walled compound on a farm near Saddam's hometown.
In front of a mud-brick shack, troops with the 4th Infantry Division (search) pulled back a carpet on the ground, cleared away the dirt and revealed a Styrofoam panel. Underneath, there was a 6-foot-deep vertical tunnel; a pipe provided air.
"Saddam could have stayed in that hole for years, and no one would know," Samir said.
When the hole was exposed, the mystery man inside repeatedly implored, "Don't shoot, don't kill me!'"
"You need to come out before they kill you," Samir shouted into the hole.
Eventually, the man stuck one arm into the light, then the other.
The former ruler looked haggard, with a wild, graying beard and ratty hair. "He looked old and miserable," Samir says.
When Samir called the man names, the ousted ruler retorted, "`Don't talk to me. I'm Saddam Hussein,'" Samir recalled. "I said, `You are nobody.'"
Samir cherishes a photo of him helping pin Saddam to the ground. Before returning to the United States, Samir said his family told him to thank Bush for helping liberate Iraq.
Last month, Samir got his chance.
When Bush came to campaign July 20 in the St. Louis suburb of St. Charles, Samir was just one of two people tapped to meet privately with the nation's commander in chief.
"I said, `I want to give you a message, speaking from my heart. I want to thank you for what you've done to Iraq,'" Samir said.
Bush tapped the man on the shoulder and replied, "Good work. I'm proud of your help with the military."
Before the meeting, Samir had scoured his possessions for something to give to Bush. He came across beads his parents had given him the last time he was in Iraq, hoping they would keep him safe.
"For the president, it's worth it," Samir recalled.