14 January 2005
The General was a slim 58-year-old, his hair black, big hands, a suit that hung uneasily upon him, a bespoke tailor's work that could never equal his pea-green uniform with swords on the epaulettes.
It was at least three minutes before I remembered the young colonel in his 30s who had led the first Iraqi tank unit across the Karun river north of Basra against the Iranian army in 1980, bulkier then, but the same black hair, the same way of sitting ramrod-straight when answering questions from reporters, 25 years of our lives - and Iraq's defeat having gone by in the meantime.
He wanted to talk about the resistance to America's occupation and about how his life was transformed by the "liberation"of Iraq by the United States, changed utterly by his own arrest by the "liberators".
He was still a general when the American pro-consul, Paul Bremer, disbanded the Iraqi army in 2003. They came for him while he was eating dinner with his family on 3 November, 2003.
"There were helicopters overhead and they came to my home from the neighbours' houses, over the roof, through the front and back doors. They took everything that was of value - money, old books, anything they wanted. They put a hood on me and tied my hands behind my back and took me to Camp Fallujah, one of Saddam's former palaces outside the town.''
That was the easy part. "They made me sit in the dirt for a day without food or being able to go to the lavatory,'' the General says. "Three American officers carried out the first interrogation. They wanted information about my military career and about other military leaders. They put a strong light in my face so I couldn't see anything. The interpreters had Egyptian, Saudi or Lebanese accents. They kept getting my name wrong, even though I spelled it for them. I told them my name, rank and number, but they violated the Geneva Conventions - they wanted to know more, and I was an officer.''
The General never accepted pro-consul Bremer's disbandment of the army. He wanted to abide by the Conventions - even though the Iraqi army rarely did - but the Americans regarded him as a civilian, a supporter of the insurgents.
"They wanted to know who was behind the resistance, who was financing it, where they got their arms, how they crossed the border from Syria.'' The second interrogations, the General says, took place outdoors. "There were three American officers, and they took turns in beating me. They used plastic bottles of water to beat me on the face and the neck and the chest. Once, the bottle broke and the plastic cut into my ear.''
He showed me a deep scar that cuts through his earlobe. "One of the Americans was a tall man with crew-cut hair, a captain so the guards told me later. The second was shorter, with black hair. The third was the tallest, heavy with dark eyes. They sat on chairs. I was made to sit on the dirt while I was beaten. Then, for three days and nights I was made to stand on one foot or forced to sit on the ground but not lie down.''
The General claimed he endured three false executions as American soldiers pulled the triggers of empty rifles beside his face while he was hooded.
On one occasion, tied to a tent pole, his jailers took off his hood to allow him to see American jets bombing Fallujah. "At the second interrogation, they kept asking me military information - what was the 'Mehdi army', who were the Wahhabis in Fallujah, how do they buy their arms, how do foreign fighters cross the border of Syria? They asked: 'Where are the arms being sold?' I told them: 'They are on sale in the bazaar - you buy guns there yourselves.'''
After nine days, the General was taken - hooded and in a truck on unpaved roads - to the soon-to-be notorious Abu Ghraib prison. "Here our interrogators were wearing civilian clothes, jeans and t-shirts. Each had an interview room of their own. We sat on the concrete in front of them. Some of these interrogations were very stupid. They would ask us about Shia political parties, the influence of Iran, the frontiers of Iraq. They should have asked us about the weapons we used. But they asked only political questions.''
The General's memories of Abu Ghraib were more than intriguing. In December, 2003, he said, a prisoner had a handgun smuggled to him in the cells and tried to kill an American guard. The prisoner was wounded with a shotgun when the Americans fetched reinforcements, and taken off to the camp hospital.
"Several men were tortured with electrodes. One Iraqi man came to me after they had used electricity on his penis - it was so bad that his penis was bleeding''. Eventually, to the General's amazement, the interrogators began asking him if he had evidence of torture at Abu Ghraib. "The stories of the torture had got out and they said there was a special committee investigating and they had orders to ask all the prisoners to give evidence. They took the details down on paper and said nothing. But the mistreatment continued.''
When the first Fallujah siege was started by the Americans, he says, the resistance surrounded Abu Ghraib. "The Americans were surrounded in the prison. The Americans had to drop food to both the guards and the prisoners by helicopter because the jail was surrounded by the mujahedin.
One of the US guards showed me a picture of his kids and asked us to protect him if the resistance stormed the prison. We all said we would look after him because Muslims protect the weak.''
There were other stories the General told; of the prisoners forced to lie in mud on winter's nights as punishment, of the prisoner who was so violently beaten that his shoulder was dislocated - when the man slipped in the mud later, the General says, he fell to the ground and his bone broke through his shoulder and he was left in pain all night on the ground.
Not surprisingly, he recalled the November siege of Fallujah with something approaching enthusiasm; how US troops had been forced to retreat to the railway station after they had initially captured it, how US forces found their main supply route captured by the resistance after advancing into the city.
It should be added he spoke angrily against only one other man during our meeting: Saddam Hussein. So whose enemy was he? And why did the Americans treat him like this?
And, if he was so dangerous, why did they release him in May of 2004 without so much as a by-your-leave?