- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 22, 2004

BAGHDAD — The international Red Cross visited Saddam Hussein in prison for the first time yesterday, and the ousted dictator wrote a letter to his family that will be delivered once the United States confirms it does not contain any hidden messages to his followers.

The announcement of the visit came after the U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, cited U.N. estimates that it may take 15 months to arrange elections — far longer than demanded by leading Iraqi politicians.

The two-member International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation, which included a doctor, spoke to Saddam privately at an undisclosed location in Iraq, spokeswoman Nada Doumani said. The announcement dispelled rumors the Americans had spirited Saddam out of the country after his Dec. 13 capture in a hole near his hometown of Tikrit.

“The aim of this visit is to track and monitor the conditions of detention and treatment of the detainee,” Mrs. Doumani said from Amman, Jordan. “We want to see whether he is getting enough food and water, and also to check his health condition and to give him the possibility to write a message to his family, which he did.”

The visit was arranged after the Pentagon formally declared Saddam a prisoner of war last month because of his status as commander in chief of Iraq’s military. As a POW, Saddam is entitled under the Geneva Conventions to certain rights, including visits by the international Red Cross and freedom from coercion of any kind during interrogations.

Saddam’s letter, presumably to his daughters in Jordan, will be delivered after American authorities make sure it contains no instructions to his followers or other banned messages.

The Red Cross made no statement about Saddam’s health or conditions of confinement, routine practice for the organization. Mrs. Doumani said the Red Cross would periodically visit Saddam as long as he remains in custody, but she gave no further details.

The ICRC has visited more than 10,000 prisoners in Iraq since March, even though fewer than 100 have been formally classified POWs, spokeswoman Antonella Notari said.

Red Cross operations in Iraq were curtailed, however, after a suicide bomber exploded a vehicle outside ICRC headquarters in Baghdad on Oct. 27. The bombing prompted the organization to evacuate its international staff.

The visit to Saddam took place as the Americans and their Iraqi partners struggle to find a formula for constituting a new government to take power June 30.

A plan to pick members of a new legislature through regional caucuses has been all but scrapped after the country’s leading Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, insisted that the lawmakers be chosen in a national election.

Shi’ites, believed to make up about 60 percent of Iraq’s 25 million people, are anxious for a vote to affirm their power after decades of suppression by the Sunni Muslim minority.

On Thursday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan concurred with the Americans that an election by June 30 is impossible. The United Nations is hoping the Iraqi leadership will come up with a new formula for establishing a transitional government.

Washington favors expanding the U.S.-appointed 25-member Iraqi Governing Council to rule the country until elections can be held.

Mr. Bremer told the Dubai-based Al Arabiya television station that the United Nations believes it could take up to 15 months to hold elections. The United Nations has announced no such estimate publicly.

Mr. Bremer cited the absence of election laws, voter lists and reliable census data as obstacles to a quick election. The remarks were made Friday and broadcast yesterday.

“These technical problems will take time to fix,” Mr. Bremer said. “The U.N. estimates somewhere between a year and 15 months. It might be that it could be sped up a little bit. But there are real important technical problems as to why elections are not possible.”

The Governing Council is divided on how to constitute a government and how soon elections could be held. Some see a delay of seven or eight months, while others say it would take at least a year to prepare for elections.

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