ATLANTA, DEC. 4 -- Cut off from the outside world and guarded by pistol-wielding security police, Richard Iliff lived with nine other "human shields" in a rodent- and bug-infested cement block building just half a mile from 14 huge natural-gas tanks in northern Iraq.

But life as a hostage had its lighter moments, according to Iliff, a General Motors sales executive who arrived here today after his release late last week with 14 other Americans. He read pulp fiction, watched old football games on a videotape machine and enjoyed hilarious, late night drinking parties with men he came to regard as his closest friends.

At times, the camaraderie even extended to the Iraqi guards, who sometimes joined them in volleyball games.

"They were just doing what they were told," Iliff said while sipping a celebratory Bloody Mary in a jet bound for his home near Atlanta. "They didn't want to be there any more than we did."

Iliff was among six Americans who arrived at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport in the company of the man who helped secure their release, former world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali. The State Department said 88 Americans are still being held at strategic installations in Iraq, while 1,000 Americans remain trapped in that country and Kuwait.

Accounts of the hostages' ordeal have varied. Some European detainees reported that U.S. and British citizens have been singled out for particularly harsh treatment, including physical abuse.

In a brief news conference at Kennedy airport, several of the former hostages said they had been well treated generally, with decent food and regular exercise. But they said the treatment varied from place to place, and they expressed deep concern about those they left behind.

"As you spent more time with {the Iraqis} and they got to know you, things improved," said Harry Brill-Edwards, a New Jersey manufacturing executive captured in Kuwait during what was supposed to have been a one-day business trip. Brill-Edwards said he was held at seven different installations, where he passed the time watching videos, doing "several hundred" sit-ups a day and reading the Charles Dickens classic "David Copperfield" twice.

But the hostages did not have to look very far for chilling reminders of why they were there. Less than two weeks ago, for example, Iliff and his fellow hostages noticed five new housing trailers being installed literally in the shadow of the liquid natural-gas tanks. Guards told them the trailers would serve as temporary housing while a septic tank near their existing quarters was replaced, but the hostages did not believe them.

"If one bomb hits those things, the whole place is history," Iliff said. "We told them they were going to have to put a gun to our heads to make us move down there."

An affable Texan with a ready wit and a tobacco-cured drawl, Iliff, 48, said he had never felt particularly vulnerable as an American living in the Middle East. He had worked in the region during the early 1980s, returning to Baghdad last February because, he said, "I liked the overseas life." His wife and two teenage daughters remained behind in Roswell, Ga., where Iliff visited them every few months.

Even after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2, Iliff said, he never thought he was in much danger. After all, General Motors was a favorite corporate citizen, having recently signed a contract for a $2.2 billion assembly plant in Iraq.

"We did so much business with the powers that be -- with the palace, with the security police, the traffic police -- that we felt we were secure," he said.

But on Aug. 26, plainclothes police appeared at his Baghdad office and whisked him away to a luxury hotel for several days, before he was made a human shield. He was moved first to an oil refinery in Baghdad and finally to the northern Iraq town of Kirkuk and its huge gas refinery, a facility operated by a former GM customer, Iliff said.

"We sold 'em a lot of trucks," he said.

Conditions in Kirkuk were spartan. At one time, 10 hostages -- four Germans, four Britons and two Americans -- lived in the converted concrete office building, sleeping three or four to a room. They shared the building with mice, frogs, insects and, on one occasion, a snake that infiltrated the primitive bathroom, Iliff said.

Strictly segregated from the hundreds of oil field workers who kept the plant operating, the hostages generally ate their meals in an unused cafeteria down the road. Iliff described the menu as bland but reasonably nutritious: cheese and hard-boiled eggs for breakfast, a tomato-based stew for lunch, and for dinner an Iraqi version of hamburger, accompanied by ubiquitous Iraqi vegetables.

"I don't think I ever want another tomato and cucumber," said Iliff, who estimated that he lost 18 pounds in captivity.

One of the most frustrating parts of their ordeal was the lack of communication with the outside world, Iliff said. He received only two letters from his family, he said, and was not allowed a phone call home until mid-November. The men followed world events on BBC radio and Voice of America.

One breakthrough occurred when Iliff's boss in Baghdad, a Briton who had not been taken hostage, was allowed to send him some clothes and Iraqi currency worth several thousand dollars. The money helped pay for "smokes, chocolates and booze," Iliff said.

The availability of arak, an anise-flavored liquor that "packs a little kick," in Iliff's words, contributed to some antic moments. Wandering near their bunkhouse one predawn morning, Iliff and a British hostage discovered a water truck with the key in the ignition and took it for a brief joy ride around the compound, returning it before the guards awoke, Iliff said.

But most diversions were of a tamer variety. The men played endless card games, watched videotapes and got "hellacious" suntans taking long walks around the huge compound, Iliff said. On Sundays, their captors bused them to a Catholic church in Kirkuk for services.

Iliff said he formed close friendships with his fellow hostages, including two Germans who had worked for a Mercedes-Benz dealership in Kuwait. He shared a room with Charles Kolb, a young American English teacher who liked to cook and whom Iliff described as "my little buddy." Kolb was not released.

The men were loosely guarded by a half-dozen youthful, plainclothes security officers, who carried pistols that they often concealed in folded newspapers, Iliff said. But the guards also joined them in volleyball matches on an asphalt court. And when several of the hostages erupted in anger at the Iraqis one day, Iliff said the head guard, known to the men as Abdullah, treated it as a personal failure.

"He felt bad about it," Iliff said. "He asked me, 'What am I doing wrong, what can I say to them?' "

Last Thursday, Abdullah visited Iliff before lunch and told him to pack his bags, that he was going home. Iliff thought it was a joke at first, but Abdullah assured him he was serious. Iliff showered, then shared a glass of arak and a teary farewell with his fellow hostages.

Then Abdullah kissed him three times on the cheek, and sent him on his way.