In his own words: Iraqi recounts a year in U.S. custody

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 4, 2009 

In his own words: An Iraqis account of a year in U.S. custody

On Aug. 27, 2008, Ali Feisal al Lami, a senior aide to the Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi, was detained at Baghdad airport by unknown American civilians and was held in secret U.S. custody until Oct. 3, 2008, when the U.S. military acknowledges receiving him at the Camp Cropper detention center in Baghdad. Lami was released without charges on Aug. 14, 2009.

A senior American defense official, on condition of anonymity because of the matter's sensitivity, confirmed that Lami was in custody before he was officially processed into Cropper, but didn't provide any details about his confinement or the interrogations Lami said he underwent. It was impossible for McClatchy to verify specific details of Lami's account because of the mysterious nature of his arrest and the reluctance of U.S. intelligence authorities to talk about his case.

The following is solely Lami's account of those 38 days when he was "off the books" and held in what he said is a secret U.S.-run prison in Iraq:

Ali al Lami, his wife and their six children returned to Iraq on Aug. 27, 2008, after a vacation in Lebanon.

As they waited in the baggage claim area of Baghdad International Airport, private security guards approached Lami and asked him to clear up a question about his passport. Already suspicious, Lami left his family at the conveyor belt and accompanied the guards to a room where two American civilians in jeans and T-shirts waited for him. Lami said the Americans asked him to come with them for a few minutes.

"I immediately gathered it was an arrest. We know from Saddam's days that five minutes turns into two years," Lami said. "I thought of asking them for their IDs or an arrest warrant, but my fear was that if I got taken by force, how would it look in front of my family? So I went with them."

Lami said he was put into a Nissan Patrol emblazoned with the logo of a private security firm. He sat in the back with a guard on each side. He was blindfolded during a short ride and was then walked into a room where guards confiscated his rings, glasses, watch, wallet, tie, jacket and cash. They took off his shoes, inspected them, and returned them.

After his hands and feet were shackled, he said, the guards removed his blindfold and Lami said he found himself in a tiny wooden cell that appeared to be a makeshift holding area within a larger concrete building.

After a couple of hours, he said, he was taken to another room for what would be the first of many interrogation sessions.

Lami said that interrogators in civilian clothing told him that he was wanted in connection with several serious crimes. Lami asked whether the arrest order came from the Iraqi government. No, he said the interrogators replied, he was in the custody of "multinational forces," a reference to the U.S.-led military presence in Iraq.

"I said, 'I don't see any multinational forces. I see only civilians. Are you CIA?" Lami said he asked. He said they snapped at him: "You'll know later. You don't ask questions here, you answer them."

"Is this an interrogation or a conversation?" Lami said he asked.

"Interrogation," came the reply, he said.

Lami said he immediately thought the civilians were U.S. intelligence agents who wanted to use him to dig up dirt on Chalabi, who'd fallen out favor — again — with the Americans, this time over suspicions that the former exile leader was working closely with violent Iranian-led groups. Lami said he told the interrogators that he wouldn't cooperate unless they provided an Iraqi arrest warrant and access to Iraqi authorities who could tell him what the charges against him were.

"They said, 'If you're asking about rights and lawyers, these are things you see in the movies,' " Lami said. "That doesn't happen here."

Lami said the Americans accused him of aiding Iranian-backed militias, organizing them through the help of Chalabi's party and on behalf of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Tehran's elite fighting force. He said they mocked his ambitions to help Chalabi become prime minister of Iraq.

"They said, 'Chalabi is finished,' " Lami said. "He's a traitor, a liar and a failure. And as much as you and the Iranians want him to be prime minister, he never will."

Lami said he laughed.

"What's so funny?" he said they asked.

"I told them, 'You Americans disagree with the Iranians on every issue except one: Neither of you wants Ahmad Chalabi to be prime minister."

Lami said he was led back to his cell, where he said he was tossed an expired military rations package for dinner. He said he couldn't have eaten, anyway. He was in shock: he'd cooperated with the U.S. military on service projects and said he enjoyed good relations with political and legal advisers at the American Embassy in Baghdad. He sat in his cell, he said, wondering what had changed.

Early in his detention, Lami said, he was flown with a hood over his head to another location where he met a new team of interrogators: a man and a woman who didn't tell him their names. They knew that he, like Chalabi, was a mathematician by training, Lami said. One of them wrote on a dry-erase board in the interrogation room: "Ali Feisal + Cooperation = Release."

"They told me, 'You're good at math. When you solve this equation, you can go home,'" Lami said.

Lami said he asked what kind of cooperation they had in mind, and they responded that they wanted the links between Chalabi and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. He said he told them that Chalabi lives in Baghdad, and that they should go ask him. Lami said he continued to aggravate the interrogators by refusing to cooperate, insisting that he see an arrest warrant signed by an Iraqi judge.

Infuriated by his refusal to "solve the equation," he said, his new captors turned up the pressure. Lami said they dressed him in an orange jumpsuit and kept him in a frigid cell with lights on 24 hours a day. He said he had no mattress, blanket or pillow, and bathroom breaks were so short and infrequent that he soiled himself.

He was filthy and couldn't wash himself in the ablutions necessary before Muslims pray. Without a toothbrush for so long, Lami said, his lower gums gradually separated from his teeth and he often woke up with blood in his mouth.

Without a calendar or watch, he said, he kept track of the date by the rations he was given _ every three meals marked another day in detention. He was blindfolded so often that his other senses became heightened. When he wasn't blindfolded, there wasn't much to see. Lami said he noted that the wall of his cell had 835 ventilation holes.

"I had time to count," he said with a small laugh.

Lami made another calculation — that he wasn't alone. At mealtime, the slot his guards passed food through clanged open and shut. He said he heard 25 other clangs at meal times, each one sounding farther away. He said he never glimpsed other prisoners, but could hear the sounds of moans, shouts and calls for water or bathroom breaks coming from other cells.

One day, a new interrogator appeared: an American whom Lami said he estimated to be in his late 20s, a man he described as cocky and arrogant. The man asked Lami about his four visits to Iran, which Lami said were all on official business related to the Iraqi government. They threw out names to hear his reaction: radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, the Khazali brothers and several other Sadrist politicians and militia leaders. Lami said he knew them all, either through opposition activities under Saddam or through the political process under the new government.

Then, he said, the interrogator asked him about his relationship with Qassim Suleimani, the leader of the Qods Force, a shadowy subset of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

"I told them the truth: that I don't even know what the face of Qassim Suleimani looks like," Lami said. "I hear about him from the news."

When he failed to give answers that pleased the interrogators, Lami said, they resorted to psychological pressure. They'd spread photos of his wife and children on the table, Lami said, and ask him to guess which one would be killed first now that he wasn't there to protect them from the mostly Sunni Baathists whom a commission Lami headed had removed from their jobs. Another time, Lami said, his interrogators affected sympathetic tones and told him that Chalabi had died in an ambush.

By that time, Lami said, he was so broken down that he believed them. He said he didn't find out it was a lie until weeks later, when he was transferred from U.S. civilian to military custody and was allowed his first phone call.

"Three days I spent crying in jail," Lami said. "They started being nicer. They said, 'You should talk now. You have no one left to support you.' "

He said the guards told him he had a big opportunity for release coming up with a visit from "a very important woman." She turned out to be a representative of the British government, Lami said, and she met with him four times in search of information on five British hostages. Lami said he might have been able to help if circumstances were different.

"I told her, 'I won't help because I don't know where I am or why I'm here. This is not the place to ask for cooperation,' " Lami said. "If this were a normal meeting at the British Embassy, it would be a different story. You kidnap someone to ask for help for someone who's been kidnapped? This is illogical."

When the talks produced nothing useful for the British, Lami said, one of his interrogators hissed, "You lost the opportunity of your life. If you just go back to the equation, you can leave."

Lami said he returned to his normal schedule of interrogations and his refusal to cooperate. In a break from all the usual questions about Iran and Chalabi, Lami said, one of his interrogators asked him out of the blue about Army Gen. David Petraeus, who then was the top U.S. military commander in Iraq.

"What do you think of him?" the interrogator asked.

"I said that he was one of the rare commanders who can work both political and military circles," Lami said he replied. "They said, 'You're going to talk to him.' "

The next evening, Lami said, he was hooded and flown to another location, from which he was taken by a short car ride to still another site. When the hood was finally removed, Lami said, he found himself with the young interrogator and two translators in a room with a long meeting table in front of a large TV monitor. A camera and microphone were on the table. The screen lit up and Petraeus appeared before Lami, holding a paper.

"Ali Feisal Hamad al Lami. Assalamu alaikum wa rahmat Allah wa barakatuh," he recalled Petraeus as saying, offering the Arabic greeting that means, "Peace be upon you, and God's mercy and blessings."

Lami said that even though he'd been told beforehand about the meeting, it was jarring to see the most senior U.S. military officer in the country addressing him.

"That was the last thing I would've imagined. I thought to myself, 'What does Petraeus want with me?' I really expected him to say that there'd been a mistake," Lami said.

Instead, Lami said, Petraeus began reading a laundry list of accusations against him: that he had relations with terrorist elements in Iran and Lebanon, that he'd supported Sadrist splinter groups responsible for deadly attacks, and that he'd been involved in the devastating bombing of a local council building in Sadr City in June 2008, an attack that killed four Americans and six Iraqis. Lami said Petraeus described his predicament as "thorny and complicated" and urged him to cooperate with his interrogators.

"The interrogators had told me not to say anything to Petraeus, but I interrupted him once when he was reading from the paper," Lami said. "I laughed and said to him, 'These charges are against Qassim Suleimani, not Ali al Lami.' "

Petraeus continued, unfazed. When the session with Petraeus ended — the whole episode lasted about seven minutes — the general signed off with the Arabic goodbye, "Ma'asalama," and hit a button that ended the videoconferencing link, Lami said.

Lami said he was transported back to his old cell and continued to refuse cooperation with interrogators. A few days later, he said, the interrogators asked him to sit for a polygraph test and promised that if he passed, he'd be released.

"They told me, 'If you refuse or fail, we'll be forced to deal with you in a different way,' " Lami said.

Within four days, Lami said, he was hooked up to a polygraph machine run by an American civilian who explained the process to him. Lami said the administrator began with softball questions such as, "Is there a light in this room?" and "Do you see a chair?" and worked his way up to sensitive queries about Iran, Chalabi and recent attacks: "Were you involved in the Sadr City bombing?"

Lami said the test was administered about 10 times, and that each time he passed. When it was over and he'd returned to his cell, he said, the young interrogator greeted him with a handshake.

"The interrogator told me, 'Congratulations, you passed your test,' " Lami said. "He was being nicer, saying it was nothing personal and that it was the multinational forces' duty to conduct interrogations. He told me I'd be transferred to another place, from which I'd be released. He told me to forget everything that had happened before."

After 38 days in the custody of his civilian jailers, Lami was transferred to Camp Cropper, a Baghdad detention center where the U.S. military holds high-value targets. He received a medical checkup, Lami said, and was finally able to call his family. He was held for 22 days in solitary confinement at Cropper, Lami said, and then he was allowed to mingle with other prisoners.

Among the first he saw was Qais Khazali, his old friend who was the leader of Asaib Ahl al Haq, the Iranian-backed Sadrist splinter militia. They hugged and exchanged traditional kisses on each cheek, Lami said. Days before Lami's release Aug. 14, he and Khazali had a long talk in Cropper.

"At the beginning, after the fall of the old regime, I chose the political path with Dr. Chalabi. They chose the path of resistance against the occupation," Lami said. "I asked him, 'So, Sheikh Qais, which is better: your military way or my political way?"

"He said, 'It's all the same. We're both in prison,'" Lami said. "He was right and I was wrong."

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