Oct. 17 -- The details of what happened to Pfc. Jessica Lynch in Iraq remain largely a mystery. For the first time, you’re going to hear from a man who says he knows because he was there.
NBC News
updated 12/10/2003 1:49:13 PM ET 2003-12-10T18:49:13

Jessica Lynch went to Iraq a soldier and was welcomed home a hero. The Special Forces operation to free her made headlines around the world. As much as we’ve heard about her capture and rescue the details of what happened to Private Lynch as a POW, and how she was treated, remain largely a mystery. For the first time, you’re going to hear from a man who says he knows because he was there.

As America watched the Iraq war unfold, one story captured the country’s imagination: the dramatic rescue of POW Jessica Lynch from a hospital behind enemy lines. Behind the daring operation, the U.S. military credits one man, a 34-year-old Iraqi lawyer, who they say risked his life, crossing enemy lines, making maps of Iraqi security, and even getting into James Bond-like martial arts fights, all to help save a young American woman he did not know.

It may sound like a Hollywood movie, but the military says it’s true. And in an exclusive television interview, Mohammed Odeh al-Rehaief tells his story.

Jamie Gangel: “The story seems almost too good to be true.”

Mohammed Odeh al-Rehaief: “Yes. I agree with you. But remember, most of the Hollywood movies were taken from real-life stories.”

Mohammed, who is still learning English, spoke to us mainly through a translator. Charming and well-educated, he understands many people will wonder just why he would risk his life for a total stranger.

Gangel: “You had to walk through a war zone called Ambush Alley.”

Mohammed: “Yes.”

Gangel: “Wasn’t this crazy?”

Mohammed: “It was worth it. The risk was worth it.”

Mohammed’s amazing tale, which he recounts in a new book, began on Sunday, March 23, 2003. That’s the day a column of support personnel from the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company was ambushed after it mistakenly drove into Nasiriyah. Eleven were killed and six were captured, including Jessica Lynch, who was severely injured when her humvee crashed.

Lynch, not among those shown off on Iraqi TV that day, was taken to Saddam Hospital, where Mohammed says his wife worked as a nurse. Four days after the ambush, Mohammed was there and says he noticed heavy security around a private room in the cardiac ward.

Gangel: “Did your curiosity get the better of you?”

Mohammed: “Yes. I’ll be honest with you. Yes. I’d like to know about the situation in this room.”

Mohammed says he sneaked past a sleeping guard and managed a quick peek through a window. What he saw changed his life forever. He says a colonel from Saddam’s feared fedayeen was interrogating a heavily bandaged captive, and apparently not getting the answers he wanted.

Mohammed: “He slapped her.”

Gangel: “Is there a word in English that you’ve learned that describes how you felt?”

Mohammed: “Yes. Yes. My heart cut.”

Gangel: “Your heart is cut.”

Mohammed: “Yes.”

Mohammed says he tried, but couldn’t forget what he saw, and decided to cross the battle lines to try to tell U.S. forces that an American POW was being held in the hospital. It was a hazardous mission, dodging a hail of bombs and the danger that either side would shoot him.

Mohammed: “I have to walk toward the Americans. But I cannot raise my hand, or have a white flag. If I do, the Iraqi snipers will shoot me, because they consider me as a deserter.”

Late that night, Mohammed reached the Marines and told them what he had seen.

Mohammed: “They want exact details about the room where she is. How high are the windows in the room, in case if there is exchange of fire. How many people guarding her.”

They asked Mohammed if he would risk his life again and go back to collect more intelligence. He agreed.”

Mohammed: “I told them I cannot forget it, because that’s why I’m here.”

Mohammed had another reason to return. He had to get his wife and five-year-old daughter out of Nasiriyah. His greatest fear was that Saddam’s henchmen would discover he had gone over to the Americans and kill his family. When he returned home the next day, his heart fell. His family was missing and his house had been ransacked. Two neighbors, who were Saddam sympathizers, rushed to capture him. That’s when Mohammed says his kung fu training came in handy. He fought his way out of the house. He later learned there was a price on his head.

Luckily, Mohammed’s family wasn’t dead. They were hiding with his brother, and he managed to spirit them over to the Americans. From there, Mohammed went back into the hospital, casing it from basement to rooftop, memorizing the details with a secret system he devised. And then came the most difficult part of all, sneaking back into POW Jessica Lynch’s room to gather that intelligence for her rescuers. With the help of his sister-in-law, a prominent doctor at the hospital, Mohammed faked a heart attack and got in.

Mohammed: “I looked at her and said, ‘Good morning, Jessica.’ She said, ‘Good morning, doctor.’ I wanted to talk to her, but I know I’m running out of time. So, all I can, I try to give her a little bit of hope. I said to her, ‘Don’t worry,’ to Jessica. She didn’t understand. She looked... I said, ‘Don’t worry.’ She give me little smile. And I knew. She smiled a little bit. And my sister-in-law said, ‘Let’s get out of here.’”

Time was not on Mohammed’s side — the Marines had warned him he had to cross Victory Bridge, his escape route, before U.S. Forces began bombing it that afternoon. And then on the way out of the hospital, Mohammed was spotted and chased by Iraqi guards. He raced for the bridge, the fedayeen gaining on him.

Gangel: “They’re shooting at you.”

Mohammed: “And I am very lucky because they missed me. If they didn’t, I wouldn’t be here today.”

By the time he reached the bridge, the bombing had begun. One bomb fell so close that shrapnel from it blinded his left eye. But it also saved his life; it killed the Iraqis chasing him.

Finally back with the Marines, nine days after Jessica Lynch was captured, Mohammed was summoned to listen in on Lynch’s rescue. It took just six minutes to get her out.

Gangel: “What was it like when you heard the words that she had been rescued?”

Mohammed: “I felt I was born— again.”

Gangel: “You felt you were born again?”

Mohammed: “Yeah.”

Gangel: “Because?”

Mohammed: “It was like, something that came to balance the loss of my eye.”

Gangel: “Did you feel like a hero?”

Mohammed: “I will be honest with you? I didn’t feel a hero. But I felt that I accomplished something that I can be proud of.”

Gangel: “Did you feel like a hero a little bit?

Mohammed: “A little bit.”

Mohammed’s story may seem almost too good to be true, and there have been questions about it, accusations that the Pentagon hyped its accounts of Jessica Lynch’s capture and rescue. Mohammed insists his part of the story is true.

Gangel: “Did you, in any way exaggerate or over-dramatize your role, what you saw, what you know happened?”

Mohammed: “No.”

In other reports, doctors and nurses who still work at the hospital have disputed Mohammed’s story, saying Lynch was never abused.

Gangel: “They are lying?”

Mohammed: “Yes. Do you know why?”

Gangel: “Why?”

Mohammed: “Because they scared if Saddam Hussein come back to the power.”

Gangel: “They’re scared Saddam Hussein will come back?”

Mohammed: “Yes.”

Gangel: “The head nurse at the hospital said there is no Iman who worked here, meaning your wife. And she said she would know.”

Mohammed: “By lying they give me now the opportunity to prove to you that they are lying.”

Gangel: “What is your proof?”

Mohammed: “This shows an I.D. issued by the Ministry of Health in Iraq for Iman Joma. Her profession is medical assistant.”

Mohammed’s account also is corroborated by this report from the Marines who debriefed him. They called his information “‘instrumental’ in the rescue of (Jessica) Lynch.”

Today, Mohammed and his family live in the United States, where they were granted asylum, moving from house to house for security reasons. They say there have been threats against them. That’s why we can’t show you his wife and daughter’s faces.

Mohammed now works for a lobbying firm founded by former Republican Congressman Bob Livingston, who says he was moved by Mohammed’s heroism. Mohammed says he hopes some day to become a U.S. citizen, and he would of course like to meet Jessica Lynch.

Gangel: “What would you say to her?”

Mohammed: “I would tell her, hey, I’m sorry, Jessica, for what you suffer. I hope you get better.”

Mohammed's book, “Because Each Life is Precious,” is available in bookstores.

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