BAGHDAD, Iraq — U.S. authorities detained a top aide to former Iraqi exile leader and Bush administration ally Ahmad Chalabi last year and accused him of helping Iranian-backed militants kidnap and kill American and British soldiers and contractors.
The aide, Ali Feisal al Lami, said he was quizzed about Iranian agents, senior Shiite Muslim politicians and deadly bombings. Then, Lami said, he asked his American interrogator: Have you ever been to the White House?
"He said, 'No,' " Lami told McClatchy. "I told him, 'Well, I have.' "
Lami said he'd visited the White House with Chalabi in November 2005 and met with a senior administration Mideast expert. By August 2008, however, when Lami was arrested at the Baghdad airport, the U.S. command considered him a dangerous man with links to Shiite terrorist groups and the Iranian intelligence apparatus.
He was released without charges last month after a 352-day detention, a quarter of it spent in what he claimed was a secret U.S.-run prison in Iraq. American officials in Iraq confirmed that Lami was detained, but they declined to reveal where he was held before the detention facility at Camp Cropper in Baghdad, where the U.S. military holds high-value detainees.
It was impossible for McClatchy to verify other details of Lami's account because of the mysterious nature of his arrest and the reluctance of American intelligence authorities to talk about his case.
His bizarre tale appears to be another example of how the Bush administration turned to Shiite Iraqi exiles, including Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, for intelligence on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and ties to terrorism, most of which turned out to be false or exaggerated, then later accused them of collaborating with Iran against the U.S. presence.
America's current and former Shiite allies are still the most powerful political blocs in Iraq, and by all accounts they're strengthening their ties to Tehran in anticipation of parliamentary elections this winter and a full U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq by the end of 2011.
Lami's case is also a window into the American military's fixation with rooting out Iran's proxies in Iraq. Lami said that at one point during his detention, Army Gen. David Petraeus, who was the top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq at the time, spoke to him via a video teleconferencing link to inform him of the serious charges he faced and urge him to cooperate with his interrogators.
A senior American defense official who was in Iraq then and has knowledge of Lami's case said the organizations that would have held him in detention around that time couldn't recall or find any record of a video teleconferencing session with Lami.
However, the official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the possibility couldn't be ruled out because "encouraging him to cooperate with the interrogators via a VTC conversation is something Petraeus would have considered in such a case at that time, when we were dealing with the Shiite extremist counteroffensive in the wake of the Basra operation," a spring 2008 crackdown on Iranian-backed Shiite militias in southern Iraq.
The official said that Petraeus never participated in an interrogation of any detainee, either by video teleconferencing or in person.
In an interview this week at Chalabi's compound in Baghdad, Lami, who leads a commission to prevent former members of Saddam's Sunni Muslim-dominated Baath Party from holding positions in the new Iraq, said interrogators had asked him repeatedly about his relationship with the armed group Asa'ib Ahl al Haq, or League of the Righteous, a splinter group of Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.
The group is accused of connections to the killings of five U.S. soldiers in 2007 and kidnappings the same year of four British contractors and a British consultant they were protecting. The British government has received the bodies of three of the guards and says the fourth is feared dead. The fate of their charge, information technology specialist Peter Moore, is unknown.
Lami said it was no secret that he was close to the Sadrist leadership; he negotiated the release of two Western journalists held by the Mahdi Army and he served as a liaison between the Sadrists and Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress.
"Yes, I know all the leadership. That's not a crime or a charge," Lami said he told his interrogators. "Some of you may think they're terrorists, but we want to have a relationship with all of them because we can bring them into the political process."
U.S. officials have said, however, that the group never was interested in working with the American-backed Iraqi government and instead was focused on attacking U.S. forces and their British and Iraqi allies.
Qais Khazali, the former leader of Asa'ib Ahl al Haq, remains in U.S. custody. His brother Laith was released in June under an agreement with the Iraqi government that called for the group to renounce violence and move toward political participation.
Lami's yearlong detention began when private security contractors led him away in front of his wife and six children as they returned to Iraq on Aug. 27, 2008, after a vacation in Lebanon. He said he was blindfolded and spirited away by armed guards and spent the next three months in harsh conditions with frequent interrogations by plainclothes Americans.
Lami said he thought the civilians were U.S. intelligence agents looking for dirt on Chalabi, who'd again fallen out of favor with the Americans, this time over suspicions that he 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.
In one early session, Lami said, interrogators who knew of his training as a mathematician wrote on a dry-erase board: "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.
Infuriated by his refusal to "solve the equation," Lami said, his American captors turned up the pressure. Lami said they 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 infrequent that he soiled himself. He couldn't wash himself as necessary before Muslim prayer. 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.
When he still failed to give answers that pleased the interrogators, Lami said, they resorted to psychological pressure. The Americans spread photos of his wife and children on a 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 Baathists whom Lami's commission had removed from their jobs.
Another time, Lami said, the interrogators affected sympathetic tones and told him that Chalabi had died in an ambush, which wasn't true. Lami said he spent three days crying after he heard the news and didn't find out it was false until he was transferred to the military-run Camp Cropper prison and was allowed to make phone calls.
In a break from all the usual questions about Iran and Chalabi, Lami said, one of his interrogators told him out of the blue one day that he'd be hearing from Petraeus.
"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.
The next evening, Lami said, he was hooded and flown to another location. When the hood was removed, he found himself with an 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. When the video teleconferencing link flickered on, Lami said, he found himself looking Petraeus in the eye.
"Ali Feisal Hamad al Lami. Assalamu alaikum wa rahmat Allah wa barakatuh," Lami said Petraeus told him, offering an Arabic greeting that means, "Peace be upon you, and God's mercy and blessings."
Petraeus then began reading a list of accusations: that Lami 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 a devastating bombing of a government building in Baghdad's Sadr City district. Lami said Petraeus described his predicament as "thorny and complicated" and urged him to cooperate with his interrogators.
He said that when Petraeus finished — the whole episode lasted about seven minutes — the general signed off with the Arabic goodbye, "masalama," and hit a button that ended the teleconference.
Lami said he'd refused to cooperate with his interrogators and that their treatment of him changed only when he passed an American-administered polygraph test.
After 38 days in the custody of his civilian jailers, Lami said, he was transferred to Camp Cropper. He received a medical checkup, he said, and finally was able to call his family. He said he was held for 22 days in solitary confinement at Cropper before he was allowed to mingle with other prisoners.
One of the first people he saw was Qais Khazali, his old friend who was the leader of the Iranian-backed Asa'ib Ahl al Haq militia. They hugged and exchanged traditional kisses on each cheek, Lami said. He said that before his 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."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Read what McClatchy's Iraqi staff has to say at Inside Iraq
Follow Middle East news at Middle East Diary