The retired South African officers who sold 200 G5 long-range artillery pieces to Saddam Hussein and trained his bombardiers how to use them described life under the dictatorship back in 1985 as pleasant but weird - similar in some ways to apartheid South Africa.
Major-General Julius Kriel, of the South African Air Force, was seconded to state arms dealer Armscor for two years to oversee the sale of the big guns to Iraq and spent a total of seven months in the country, but never met Saddam, who was then directing the Iraq-Iran war.
"There were occasions when they were going to set up a meeting with him, but they never happened," Kriel said this week. "He was very elusive and very evasive of meeting people from outside Iraq - even though there were videos of him walking among the Iraqi people."
But, said Colonel Jakes Jacobs, the South African Defence Force (SADF) artillery leader seconded to Armscor to conduct the training in Iraq for three-and-a-half months in 1985, giant posters of and monuments to Saddam were everywhere: "You couldn't stand at one poster without seeing another bloody large poster, about two-by-three metres, of Saddam."
"At that time, digital watches were in fashion and all of them had the face of Saddam on them - and his face was stencilled on the bumpers of all the military vehicles. He was sort of an idol, a god over there. One of the guys with me said if Saddam ever fell from power, it would take a year to remove all the posters."
During the days, Kriel, Jacobs and a small team of SADF officers and non-commissioned officers were secluded at the School of Artillery at the giant military base at Hila, an hour out of Baghdad on the Basra road, where they dealt with the Iraqi chief of defence acquisitions, their director of artillery and 18 Iraqi gunners who were to be trained on the G5s.
The G5, a towed 155mm howitzer, was developed by controversial Canadian engineer Gerald Bull, who did time in a US jail in 1980 for breaking the arms embargo on South Africa. The G5 was the predecessor of both South Africa's G6 155mm howitzer and artillery pieces Bull developed for Iraq: the 155mm al-Majnoon and the 210mm al-Fao.
Bull was working on a project to build an unwieldy 1 000mm "super-gun" for Iraq when he was killed in 1990, allegedly by Israeli Mossad agents.
Back in 1985, the South Africans, dressed in civilian clothes for security reasons and with a ban on calling each other by their ranks, slept at a prefabricated luxury hotel on an island in the Tigris River known as Honeymoon Island, because only newlyweds - and Iraqi top brass with their mistresses - could afford to spend a weekend there.
It reminded him, Jacobs said, of "a holiday resort like Potch Dam". But it was wartime and not only was "the whole of Baghdad very strongly protected, with anti-aircraft batteries on all the bridges", but "we were occasionally woken by an explosion from a missile or from a missile being fired from a gun".
Other signs of the war were the fact that many women were working in men's jobs while their sons and husbands were away at the front. Jacobs said he was impressed by a visit to the Martyrs' Monument in which the names of those killed in the war were inscribed on marble walls, gilded with gold melted down from jewellery donated by the Iraqi people.
At that time, Iraq was awash with French, German and Russian military advisers - and the Iraqis felt the need to keep them and the South Africans far apart, especially when, as Kriel said, "we did certain work on their MiG-23s".
"We were taken to the airbase before first light. Then they'd close the hangar door and we'd work all day doing certain modifications to the Russian aircraft. We'd only be let out after the Russians left."
The South African mission was so secret that, Jacobs recalled, "an Iraqi engineers captain who saw the gun and said 'Oh, that's a G5 from South Africa!' was taken away; that was the last time we saw him".
Kriel said the South Africans had to get permission to bring in computers, "but copying machines were a no-no because they could be used to copy propaganda and secrets. You couldn't make a phone call: you had to go to the post office and get a permit and say who you were calling; then stand in long queues while they made the call, and even then you knew they were listening in."
Kriel said he found the Iraqis "fantastic people to deal with" and he really enjoyed Arab culture, especially because "once they accept you as brothers and friends, it is for life".
After proving the G5's effectiveness in Iraq's harsh desert conditions, with ground temperatures as high as 65°C, two contracts for 100 G5 guns each were signed, though Kriel said: "A contract on paper means nothing to them; what they want is for you to look them in the eye and give them your word; that's what matters."
He said all 200 G5s were shipped to Iraq, though none are believed to have seen service in the Iraq-Iran war - and in the first Gulf War, the Americans blinded the Iraqi artillery by taking out their electronic target-acquisition networks. During that later war, South Africa stopped shipping G5 shells to Iraq because the Iraqis stopped paying, Kriel said.
"Nobody regarded Iraq as a place to visit or to trade with - which is why South Africa got involved in the arms trade there," Jacobs recalled.
Still, he noted an uncomfortable similarity to South African racism when a dark-skinned, woolly-haired taxi driver cut in front of them one day and an Arab lieutenant next to him said: "Please pardon us; those with black complexions and Afro hairstyles have f**k-all brakes."
Kriel also noted similarities: "We never got into contact with possible dissidents and the only TV was propaganda TV. They believed, like we believed in South Africa, in the total aanslag, and that they were protecting their people from communism."
By MICHAEL SCHMIDT The Star