The taxicab stopped at the curb in front of a music store blaring the latest Arabic pop and a small shop that sells potato chips and candy. From the back seat, a woman in a black dress stepped out. She seemed to be walking a little strangely and appeared nervous, but no one on the street thought much of it. The men recognized her Iraqi accent when she asked where she might find the home of Mohammad Salem Arabiyat.
The woman said her sister had married Arabiyat's son, Nidal, who had gone to Iraq to fight the Americans, the men said. Nidal had died in Iraq just after the start of the war in 2003, and the town of Salt considered him a martyr for helping defend the Arab homeland against Western occupation. A young man who gave his name only as Ahmed said his uncle offered to drive the Iraqi woman to Arabiyat's hillside home, with its panoramic views of the West Bank and Israel in the distance.
It was Nov. 9. In Amman, about a 30-minute drive from Salt, rescue workers were pulling the dead and wounded from the wreckage of three luxury hotels where suicide bombers detonated explosive belts, killing 59 people, most of them Jordanians. News of the blasts had not yet reached Salt, northeast of the capital. The men who recounted the Iraqi woman's arrival said they did not see her again after she left for Arabiyat's house until she appeared on state-run Jordanian television four days later, modeling the suicide belt that she had worn to the Radisson SAS hotel in Amman. Jordanian intelligence identified her as Sajida Rishawi, 35, an Iraqi from the city of Fallujah. In the videotaped confession, Rishawi described how her husband pushed her out of the Philadelphia ballroom at the Radisson when her belt failed to detonate amid a wedding party gathered there. He then blew himself up.
Of the group of seven men who related the nighttime appearance in Salt of the Iraqi woman in the black dress, only Ahmed was willing to give his name. His uncle, who drove Rishawi to Arabiyat's house, has been detained by police since the would-be bomber was apprehended Nov. 13, the morning she appeared on television, he said.
The men appeared nervous as they talked in the street outside the shops. "Please leave us alone," a man in a gray running suit said. "You're not going to find out more here. Everyone is scared." Abdullah Falah Salem, who declined to give his tribal name, said he saw the would-be bomber only from a distance. When asked where the bomber hid, Salem jumped into a vehicle and escorted a reporter and her translator to the home of Mohammad Salem Arabiyat.
"They said the intelligence caught her," Salem said on the drive to the house. "We caught her. She came and claimed to be the sister of the wife of Nidal. She's a liar. That is not true."
Arabiyat was not at home Friday, but his family invited the visiting journalists to a patio for tea and coffee. The sons refused to talk, saying their father spoke for the family. One son, however, confirmed that his brother, Nidal, was one of 30 men from Salt who died in Iraq fighting the Americans.
Arabiyat's sister, who declined to give her name, said the family had not harbored Rishawi. "This didn't happen in Salt," she said, contradicting government officials.
Prime Minister Adnan Badran told reporters on Wednesday that after the bombings, Rishawi fled to an apartment in Amman that she and the other three Iraqis involved in the suicide attacks had rented. She then went to Salt, Badran said. Jordanian officials had previously said that Rishawi was arrested in Amman.
In Salt, fact and rumor have mixed like cement, making it difficult to discern exactly what happened here. But witnesses said they saw Rishawi the night of the bombings and later connected her with the woman giving the televised confession. The town has been teeming with intelligence agents since the attacks, they said.
Salem said he was certain that Rishawi camped out for a few days at the home of Arabiyat or one of his sons.
Neighbors said Arabiyat is a religious moderate, though his views reflect those of this town, which, like much of the Arab world, is staunchly anti-American because of the Iraq war and the perceived relationship of the United States and Israel. His relatives and neighbors said Arabiyat would have been detained if intelligence agents thought he was involved in the hotel attacks or knowingly hosted the fugitive bomber.
When Arabiyat returned to his home Friday from a wedding, he too denied that the bomber had stayed in his home, a middle-class dwelling at the end of a road that zigzags through the hills of Salt. "It would have been an honor for us" to turn her in, he said, "but it's not true."
Arabiyat, who wore a tweed sports jacket over a gray robe, denounced the hotel bombings. "This was disgusting," he said. "No religion allows this."
Salem, a relative of the family who was warmly welcomed when he showed up at their home, said if he had caught the bombers before they detonated their explosives at the hotels, "I'd have blown them all up myself."
"We were angry," Arabiyat added.
The men also acknowledged that many in this town, which is well known for supplying fighters to Afghanistan and Iraq, resent the American occupation of Iraq. "But," Arabiyat said softly, his face soaking up the warm, setting sun, "our hatred to America is to the policy and not to the people."
Salem interrupted. "They interfere a lot," he said, of Americans. "I teach my kids to hate America. I tell my kids to hate Americans because they have nothing to do with us, and they interfere with us. Does America really define democracy? Look at Abu Ghraib. This is your big witness."
Salem said he supported Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, which has carried out some of the deadliest terrorist attacks in that country. The group asserted responsibility for the Amman bombings. It was the first to report in an Internet statement that a husband-and-wife team had been involved in the attacks, tipping off Jordanian intelligence to the potential involvement of a female bomber.
In an audio statement posted on an al Qaeda Web site on Friday, a man identifying himself as Zarqawi said the wedding party at the Radisson was not the intended goal. "The idea that they blew up inside wedding ceremonies is a lie by the Jordanian regime," Zarqawi said. "The target was a meeting of intelligence agencies, but a roof collapsed on a wedding party from the blast." That account did not match statements by witnesses or by Rishawi's reported confession.
"We ask God to have mercy on the Muslims, who we did not intend to target, even if they were in hotel which are centers of immorality," said Zarqawi, whose voice could not be accurately identified.
Jordanian intelligence tracked Rishawi to a border crossing on Nov. 5. Through video imaging, they saw her entering Jordan in a car through booth No. 28. Her husband, Ali Hussein Ali Shamari, followed behind.
Rishawi's relatives in Fallujah said she was angry about the November 2004 assault on her city, which American and Iraqi security forces had stormed to retake it from insurgents. Rishawi was the sister of Mubarak Atrous Rishawi, Zarqawi's top deputy in the western Iraqi province of Anbar, who was killed by U.S. forces during the Fallujah assault.
In the car after leaving Arabiyat's house, Salem said the family was too scared to tell the truth. Tribal tradition, which is strong in Salt, would have dictated that the family take in this perceived relative and host her for three days before asking questions or about her intentions.
Salem said the family grew suspicious after news circulated that an Iraqi woman might have been involved in the bombings. "They noticed she could not really sit down," he said. "The way she was sitting and standing was just not normal."
Jordanian intelligence said they arrested Rishawi who was still wearing her suicide vest.
"The family called the intelligence," Salem said. "They came with the police force and took her. They arrested her while she was asleep."