Nine years ago in Abu Ghraib prison, on the night before doctors were to cut off his right hand, Nazaar Joudi wrote a letter to his wife. It was the final act he was to perform with the hand, which was to be methodically removed on Saddam Hussein's orders as punishment for the crime of doing business in American dollars.

"Do not be sad," Joudi wrote to Um Fuqaan that night. "Hopefully Allah will replace my hand with an even better one. . . . God will reward you for standing next to your husband and being my right hand."

Thanks to a Fairfax-based film producer, a half-dozen health care providers and businesses in Houston, and a legendary "white knight in blue spectacles," Joudi's promise to his wife came true last Monday.

Doctors and prosthetists moved by the plight of Joudi and six other Iraqi merchants whose right hands were amputated at Abu Ghraib finished fitting each of the men with $50,000 "bionic" hands. Black tattoos of crosses that had been carved into the men's foreheads to label them criminals were removed by a Houston plastic surgeon a few weeks earlier. All the services and products were donated.

As resentment of Americans in Iraq seems to swell each day, these seven Iraqis are unabashed in their gratitude, not just for their new hands, but for the U.S. role in ending what they call the "reign of horror" that claimed the lives of as many as 2.5 million of their countrymen.

"Tell the American people what all Iraqis want to tell to them," Salah Zinad said. "Tell them: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."

The other six Iraqis were equally effusive, their appreciation undimmed by the current prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, outside Baghdad, and other occupation worries back home.

"We have freedom in Iraq. Now we say anything we want," Zinad said. "Under Saddam we whispered."

In recent interviews, the seven Iraqis were unflagging in their confidence about Iraq's future and the U.S. role in it.

Zinad on the prisoner abuse: "Some American soldiers are a problem. Not all Americans. These Americans who did this will be punished. Under Saddam, such abuses were rewarded and praised. Iraqis understand the difference."

Qasim Kadhim on Americans who think the invasion of Iraq was a mistake: "I think those people have made a mistake, because under Allah, all people are brothers. We must help each other if we have a problem. . . . How do we do it if nobody helps us?"

Basim Al Fadhly on why many Iraqis are angry: "They have good reasons to be angry. There have been many mistakes because of cultural differences. Iraq is not a country like America yet. We were 35 years under Saddam. But that does not mean Iraqis don't want democracy. People like freedom, but with freedom you need life."

The seven have become celebrities in Houston as they learn how to use their artificial limbs and soak up a bit of Texas hospitality when not at the hospital. They've watched an Astros game in the owner's box, donned cowboy duds for a barbecue at the historic Y.O. Ranch, even spent a night at the dog track.

This week, they make a pilgrimage to Washington to employ their new limbs shaking the hands of more Americans they want to thank, including soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center who have undergone amputations. They also plan to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

"Saddam is the past," Kadhim said. "Now we must make business contacts in America."

'Amputation City'

Their odyssey began almost exactly a year ago, with an overheard conversation in a Baghdad cafe.

Don North, a former correspondent for both ABC and NBC who is currently a freelance producer, was in Baghdad last June helping set up the U.S.-sponsored Iraq Media Network when he received a videotape from one of the Iraqi journalists working for him. It showed doctors amputating the hands of nine Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib in 1995.

"I'd seen a lot of videotape, but this was truly gruesome and shocking," North said. In Baghdad, the owner of a small video production shop had been asked to make 10 copies of the tape by secret police in 1995. He clandestinely made an extra to keep as evidence of the atrocities. That was the copy that found its way to North.

Al Fadhly said that, after a year in hellish prisons and five months in Abu Ghraib, he was almost relieved when he heard he and the eight other merchants were going to be freed after having their hands amputated.

"We were the lucky ones," Al Fadhly said. "Others stayed in prison much longer. Thirty thousand in Abu Ghraib went to the hangman's noose."

Their trial lasted 30 minutes. Al Fadhly said all nine men believe they were scapegoated by Hussein because his economy was collapsing after the Persian Gulf War, and U.S. currency was anathema to him. Two weeks after the men lost their hands, they said, the law banning trade in foreign currency was thrown out.

Hussein had the nine hands brought to him, to be sure the sentence was carried out, said Farhad Taha, an attending physician at the amputations who was later interviewed by Al Fadhly, who now works for the media network.

Amnesty International estimates that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Iraqis had their hands amputated for similar crimes.

"Baghdad is Amputation City," North said. "Within a block you run into two to three people without a leg, or an arm, or an ear."

Hussein's secret police, like Hitler's, kept meticulous records of who was killed or maimed, and why. A committee of former prisoners is sorting through 2 million to 4 million files in hopes of accurately quantifying the scope of the depravity.

One of the nine maimed men escaped to Europe after his release, and another has died. Over the next nine years, the seven who remained in Baghdad kept a low profile, living the life of scarred outcasts. They also became their own support system, forever bonded by their time in prison.

"They were their own best friends," North said.

Houston's 'White Knight'

After viewing the tape, North was determined to make a documentary about the men. "It was already a famous story in Baghdad."

When he met the seven, North decided he would shed his role of detached observer. "I decided I wasn't going to leave it up to chance that some doctor who saw my documentary would offer to help," he said.

An oil engineer from Houston, Roger Brown, overheard North talking about the men in a Baghdad cafe. He suggested North contact Houston's "white knight in blue spectacles," famed TV newsman Marvin Zindler.

Zindler is the kind of institution only Texas could spawn: a woofer-voiced champion of underdogs and the underprivileged who sports white pants, a silver hairpiece and blue-tinted eyeglasses.

Although Zindler made his name with muckraking, populist journalism -- he uncovered the scandal memorialized in "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" -- these days he uses his airtime on the ABC affiliate's "Eyewitness News" more to comfort the afflicted than to afflict the comfortable.

"Why'd we do this?" Zindler replies to a question. "Because the guys had their hands cut off."

Zindler is 82 but looks much younger thanks to 30 reconstructive surgeries. ("I was fired from my first TV job for being too ugly," he explains.) Those surgeries yielded a good friend in Joe Agris, Zindler's plastic surgeon. After talking to North, Zindler called Agris to get the good deeds rolling.

Agris, who has volunteered time in Vietnam and Nicaragua doing reconstructive surgery on children, rounded up the doctors, nurses, hospitals and clinics to give the men new hands. North spent his days off making the logistical arrangements. It took months to line up all the benefactors and cut through the red tape, but by early April the amputees were bound for Houston.

The Methodist Hospital, the Institute for Rehabilitation and Research, and Dynamic Orthotics and Prosthetics in Houston donated the operating rooms, rehab and training; Houston-based Continental Airlines paid for the seven Iraqis' flight; the Marriott and Warwick hotel chains housed them; and the Minneapolis branch of a German prosthetics company, Otto Bock, provided the artificial hands.

The Iraqis were met with a surprise in their first days in Texas: the prospect of another round of surgeries to further shorten their arms. Agris and another surgeon he'd enlisted, Fred Kestler, determined that the Abu Ghraib surgeries had left the men with far too much real pain and "phantom pain" -- painful sensations where the limb used to be. Operations were needed to repair the nerves and create a new, smooth surface for the artificial hands.

Last week, the men had recovered enough for the final fitting of their bionic hands, microprocessor-assisted marvels that receive instructions from the brain via electrodes attached to muscles in the arm. The Iraqis are training themselves to fire the right muscles to control hand functions, a process that will take months. Already, they can throw balls, shake hands, raise a glass.

Agris and North will go back to Baghdad with the seven in early June to make sure they have the proper medical support. Agris has arranged to visit other amputees, and he will help Baghdad hospitals upgrade their knowledge about amputations and prosthetics.

"The thing that'll win hearts and minds is the humanitarian effort, not guns," Agris said. "You take care of someone's child, not only do you help the child but you win over the family. And the family talks to the neighbors and you win over the neighbors. It just escalates."

He thinks Al Fadhly, Joudi, Kadhim, Salah and the other three men -- Laith Aggar, Hassan Al Gereawy and Al'aa Hassan -- will change some minds, too.

"I think we're going to see a ripple effect, especially with a guy like Al Fadhly who's got a job working for the coalition's new TV station. They're bringing back a different attitude, a different look."

Ready for Homecoming

No one turned down North, Zindler or Agris when they asked for help. L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator of Iraq, wrote an executive memo authorizing the trip. The Homeland Security Department issued seven "medical emergency" visa waivers, and the Air Force transported the group to Germany to catch the Continental flight to Houston.

"This is really who we are as a country," Agris said.

After nearly two months in Houston, the Iraqis admit they are getting homesick. Kadhim has developed what he says is too much of a fondness for Budweiser, Aggar is eager to get back to his jewelry shop, and the seven men have run up a $6,000 phone and laundry bill at the hotels.

North is shopping his documentary about the men to major television networks. He worries, however, that the publicity the Iraqis have received and their new, expensive hands might make them targets back home. "Anybody in Iraq who is a decent, productive member of society has become a target," he said.

But the Iraqis themselves aren't that worried.

"Saddam's friends don't have much power any more," Aggar said. "Iraq is many millions of people. They are only hundreds. They are the ones who live in fear now."

"Allah will watch over us," Kadhim added. "Once Saddam has his trial, it will be over. Hopefully, it will be quickly."

When Al Fadhly gets home, the first thing he plans to do with his new hand is wave vigorously to his friends and neighbors. Kadhim plans to embrace his seven boys and daughter all at once. Aggar said he will, for the first time, properly shake the hand of the friend who watched over his house and family while he was in prison.

Last week at Dynamic Orthotics, Joudi didn't answer when asked what he would do first. He was already busy using his prosthetic to try something he hadn't done since the night before he lost his hand. He was writing a letter to his wife.

Prosthetics specialist David Baty assists Basim Al Fadhly, one of seven men whose travel costs to Houston and medical expenses were donated.Outside Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison are, from left, Qasim Kadhim, Salah Zinad, Nazaar Joudi, Laith Aggar, Al'aa Hassan and Basim Al Fadhly. They and three others were ordered by Saddam Hussein to have their hands amputated in 1995.