Alaa Namiq doesn’t want to talk about it. Or he’s dying to. It’s hard to tell. One minute he’s shaking his head, stone silent. Then he starts bragging about it and he won’t stop talking.
“I dug the hole for him,” he says, his eyes burning with pride.
“The hole,” known to the world as the “spider hole,” is the tiny underground bunker on Namiq’s farm where former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was captured by U.S. soldiers on Dec. 13, 2003.
Namiq and his older brother Qais have rarely spoken publicly about how they helped hide the world’s most sought-after fugitive for nearly nine months after the U.S.-led invasion.
But now, sipping tea in the modest little restaurant he opened this summer, a couple of football fields away from “the hole,” Alaa Namiq seems willing.
Maybe enough time has passed. Maybe few have asked. But for whatever reason, Namiq now folds his tall, broad-shouldered frame into a little plastic chair, tugs on a cigarette and talks about hiding the man his family had known for decades.
“He came here and he asked us for help and I said yes,” says Namiq, 41, wearing a long white dishdasha robe. “He said, ‘You might be captured and tortured.’ But in our Arab tribal tradition, and by Islamic law, when someone needs help, we help him.”
Hussein was born in a village near Tikrit, just north of this little town on the banks of the Tigris River. When the U.S. military was searching for him, it became convinced, correctly, that he would find shelter among his Tikriti clansmen in these lush orchards of date palms and orange and pear trees.
Namiq says he and Qais were arrested along with Hussein and spent a miserable six months in Abu Ghraib prison. Once a driver and an aide to Hussein, he has spent the past few years driving a taxi, finally saving enough to open his family restaurant a few weeks ago.
At his restaurant on the riverbank, Namiq greets an American reporter graciously, offering grilled chicken and sweet tea on a sweltering evening. The restaurant is a small cinder-block shack, with a couple of grills and a few plastic tables set outside. Four of his brothers cook and wait tables for customers watching a big flat-screen TV showing Turkish dramas and men’s volleyball.
“I won’t tell you everything,” Namiq says, over and over, during the course of a couple of hours. “Someday I will say all I know. Maybe I will write a book. Maybe a movie. But I won’t tell you everything.”
Then he starts talking.
Namiq says his family, mainly he and Qais (who declined to be interviewed), helped move Hussein among various houses in the area after the March 2003 invasion.
Hussein never used a phone, he says, knowing that the Americans were listening for his voice. Namiq says that Hussein read and wrote extensively, prose and poetry, and that his writings were confiscated by the U.S. troops who captured him.
Namiq says Hussein wrote to his wife and daughters but he never saw them. His only visitors were his sons Uday and Qusay — Namiq says he helped arrange their secret trips to the farm.
Hussein released several fiery speeches during the time he was in hiding, exhorting his supporters to fight the Americans. Namiq says he and Hussein recorded them together on a small tape recorder.
Knowing the Americans would be analyzing the recordings for clues to Hussein’s whereabouts, Namiq says he once drove 10 miles to the city of Samarra, parked on the side of the road and recorded the sounds of urban traffic.
“I wanted to make the Americans feel dizzy and confused,” he says.
Namiq clearly still reveres Hussein, who was hanged in 2006.
“Saddam knew there would be a day that he would be captured and executed,” Namiq says. “In his heart, he knew that everything was gone and that he was no longer president. So he started something new — jihad against the occupiers. He sacrificed everything he had, including his two sons, for the sake of the country.”
Namiq says that when he was held at Abu Ghraib, U.S. soldiers — including a female interrogator who told him he looked like actor Tom Selleck — questioned him daily about weapons of mass destruction and the hiding places of top aides to Hussein.
He says that his cell was kept dark 24 hours a day and that guards threw in buckets of water to keep it constantly wet. He says he was hooded and beaten, and bitten by guard dogs. He was submitted to mock executions, he says, and constant, deafening rock music.
“I endured the dogs and the torture, but I couldn’t stand that music,” Namiq says, without a trace of humor in his deep voice.
A spokesman for the U.S. Central Command said that because records of individual prisoners at Abu Ghraib in 2003 would be difficult to retrieve, military officials could not immediately confirm Namiq’s arrest or detention. A spokesman for the U.S. Special Operations Command said that most details of Hussein’s capture remain classified.
Hussein’s attorney, Khalil Dulaimi, quoted the former dictator in a 2009 book as saying that he had known the Namiq family since 1959 and that they had hidden him. In the book, Qais Namiq is accused of eventually turning Hussein in to the U.S. troops, which Alaa Namiq vehemently denies.
The Namiq family has become something like royalty in Dawr for sheltering a local tribesman who is still idolized by many here.
“We consider it a heroic act,” said Col. Mohammad Hassan of the Iraqi National Police, who is stationed in Dawr. “This act doesn’t concern this family only, but it represents all the citizens of Dawr because this city embraced Saddam.”
Hassan said that if the people of Dawr felt differently, the Namiq family would not have been able to continue living here. He said the family members were already well respected because they had worked for years as cooks and fishermen for Hussein.
“Now,” he said, “the people of Dawr respect and appreciate this family even more than before.”
Hussein was buried just up the road in Auja, the village where he was born. Aware of the former dictator’s enduring popularity around here, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has ordered his grave site closed to the public to keep it from becoming a shrine.
On the farm where Hussein was captured, the “spider hole” sits at the base of a date palm tree, covered with a four-foot-square concrete cap, largely forgotten beneath dirty cages filled with doves and parakeets.
Chickens and dogs roam the grounds, and huge orange carp swim in two ponds. On a midsummer evening, the trees are so full that with every strong breeze, small yellow pears fall like raindrops.
Across the narrow road at his restaurant, Namiq excuses himself and gets up from the table. He walks around the dirt courtyard, table to table, greeting customers who all know him by name.