MOSUL, Iraq—In the end, Odai and Qusai Hussein trusted their fate to the wrong man.
"I opened the door one day and there they were," Nawaf Zaidan al Nasiri, 46, the man who owned the house where Saddam Hussein's sons died, told Mukhlis Dhahir al Jaboori, 41, his friend and neighbor, a former businessman and coach of Mosul's wrestling team.
Jaboori said he was shocked to find Zaidan sitting in a U.S. Humvee with his 19-year-old son, Shalan, after the U.S. raid that killed Odai and Qusai Hussein and destroyed Zaidan's house ended Tuesday.
When the Americans allowed him to take his friend water, cigarettes and food, he also was surprised when Zaidan told him his house had been attacked because he had allowed the brothers to stay there for 23 days. Zaidan reminded Jaboori of the Muslim rule that a guest who seeks shelter can't be refused.
How Saddam's sons met their deaths is emblematic of the gangster ethos that has ruled Iraq since Saddam's Baath Party came to power 35 years ago. Saddam, his family and the ruling clan from his hometown, Tikrit, doled out business contracts and favors like mafia dons. Zaidan was one of the recipients of that largesse, running a successful import-export business, often bragging to his friends and neighbors of his connections to Saddam.
In a country where tribe trumps nation, family ties trump tribe and money trumps everything else, it came as no surprise to many of Zaidan's neighbors that Odai and Qusai Hussein, with a $15 million price tag on each of their heads, eventually would meet their end.
Zaidan's neighbors saw him as an opportunist who enriched himself by claiming close ties to Saddam. And while no one has proof, many of them suspect he may have enriched himself again—claiming $30 million in U.S. reward money—by betraying the Hussein brothers to American authorities.
"It was Nawaf; there is no doubt to me," said Farouk Saleh Kareem, 52, a merchant who lives two blocks from the scene of Tuesday's gun battle. "I know about Nawaf ... he loved money more than anything else."
" `I had old bonds with them, and I could not refuse,' " Jaboori said, recounting Zaidan's words. " `But I was embarrassed. They have brought a disaster on me.' "
Jaboori said he was puzzled why Zaidan, sitting in the Humvee, was unhandcuffed and at ease, certainly not under arrest despite having harbored two notorious fugitives. Zaidan and son left the house around 10 a.m. after U.S. troops called on all occupants to come out. Jaboori also was puzzled by Zaidan's story about taking his wife and family for breakfast at 6:30 that morning in a restaurant along the Tigris River, conveniently leaving them there while he came home to meet trouble.
When Jaboori asked if he could go get Zaidan's family or if there was anyone he should call, Zaidan smiled cryptically.
" `There is no need,' " Jaboori recalled him saying.
Zaidan's behavior had been puzzling for weeks.
According to Jaboori and others, while Zaidan often bragged about his Saddam connections, he also talked badly about Saddam and his sons, especially after his brother Saleh was imprisoned, allegedly for boasting that he was Saddam's cousin. Sentenced to seven years, Saleh was released after six weeks.
According to Omar Muhammed Rashid, 34, the keeper of the mosque where Zaidan often went for prayers, Saddam had made the same threats to Zaidan himself.
"He would complain that `Saddam has my head under his foot,' " Rashid said. "He said that Saddam had told him, `If you claim you are my relative again, I will execute you.' He told this to everyone."
Even with his troubles, Zaidan kept pictures of himself with Saddam on his wall. He took them down during the war and hid them, Jaboori said.
When ethnic Kurdish rebels entered Mosul, Zaidan ran a yellow flag up in front of his house, the banner of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the groups that govern Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq, and began dressing in Kurdish clothing. He took down the flag and began wearing Arab dress again when the Kurds pulled out and the Americans took over, Jaboori and others said.
"He had a very changeable mind," Rashid said. "He was only out for himself."
But Jaboori said he remained close to Zaidan.
"About 40 days ago, he asked me what I would do if Saddam or any other official of the former regime came to my door and asked me for shelter," Jaboori said. "I told him that I would do the traditional thing and protect them, but then I would ask them to leave after three days (which is the obligatory limit proscribed in the Quran). But he said, `No, on the contrary, if any officials came to my house, I would protect them with my life.' "
According to Jaboori, a group of four men from Tikrit arrived at Zaidan's house about a month ago, including a former Iraqi air force squadron commander who was married to the daughter of Whatban, Saddam's half-brother. The group visited about four times, Jaboori said. During one conversation, in which Jaboori claims to have been present, the men told Zaidan they wanted his help in securing safe passage out of the country.
"The guy married to Whatban's daughter said they wanted to go to Syria," Jaboori recalled. "They said they wanted to go out to Syria and then to another country. `We will sell everything we have in order to go there.' They appeared to be talking in some kind of code."
Zaidan promised to help clear the way for them. The last time the four men visited was in late June, Jaboori said. Several days later, Zaidan, who had always complained about money, had a new BMW with Jordanian license plates.
Zaidan, who had a habit of sitting in his garden and talking with neighbors who passed, suddenly stopped sitting outside. He began to come and go at odd hours.
His buying habits also changed.
"Normally, he took about four or five pieces of bread every day," said Sheik Shahir al Khazraji, 31, who owns a bakery across the street from Zaidan's house. "All of a sudden, about three weeks ago, he started buying 40 pieces of bread every day. On the night before the American attack, he brought 60 pieces of bread."
Jaboori said people in the neighborhood began to tell him stories of Zaidan's behavior. His friend had begun visiting a tobacco shop down the street and buying cigars. He usually smoked cigarettes. One day, a store owner across the street told Jaboori that Zaidan had come in and asked for "the biggest bag of the best rice they had."
When Jaboori asked him about his new buying habits, Zaidan said simply, "You know, I have a lot of visitors these days."
Jaboori claims he had begun to grow suspicious of his friend's behavior by this time, so when he saw Zaidan's gate half-open about a month ago he went inside. There were two Mercedes sitting in the garage. He first encountered Zaidan's wife, who called to her husband. Zaidan came out of the basement, "looking confused and exhausted." When Jaboori suggested they sit down and watch satellite television, Zaidan politely declined, saying his wife's relatives were staying in the house.
According to Rashid, the mosque keeper, Zaidan also had a window facing a neighbor's yard covered in bricks.
"It was obvious that he didn't want his neighbor to see who was in the house," Rashid said. "But of course, nobody knew it was Odai and Qusai. Because of what happened to his brother, nobody ever thought he would hide them."
Jaboori said he finally confronted Zaidan, who admitted that four men were staying in his home, "and they have a big problem with them."
"The way he said that, it suggested that the `big problem' was a person," Jaboori said. "But when I asked him to tell me what this problem was, he said he couldn't tell me."
Jaboori now thinks the "big problem" Zaidan referred to was Saddam himself. Sadi Ahmed Pire, the director of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan's Mosul office, said Kurdish spies in the area reported that as soon as Zaidan left his house the morning of the attack, another car left Zaidan's home with three men inside.
"One of them was a Toyota, a model `85," Pire said. "It had normal tags."
Pire said one report suggested that one of the passengers was Saddam, but it remains unverified.
"I don't think that Saddam would stray very far from Qusai," Pire said. "Because Saddam doesn't trust anyone else. But I cannot say if it was him."
Jaboori, when asked why he never reported his friend to the American military, said he never felt that he had enough proof.
"I wanted to have it for sure, so that I could shoot this report straight like a missile," he said.
If others had their suspicions about Zaidan, they, too, never took them to the authorities. Jaboori now wishes he had.
"I am very sad," he said. "Because I just learned about the bounty on their heads."
It remains unclear what happened to Zaidan. U.S. military officers around Mosul have been instructed not to talk about the operation.
But there's been at least one sighting of Zaidan. Al Khazraji, the baker, said he went Thursday to file a claim with U.S. authorities for damages to his home from the American attack.
"I saw him myself sitting in the lobby," al Khazraji said. "He looked very comfortable. He had his legs crossed. But I did not speak to him. It would not be honorable to do so."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ