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Hussein’s new regime behind bars

Iraqi official gives a first account of days in custody

BAGHDAD -- In a tiny walled courtyard beneath a blazing sun, a lonely hermit in flowing purple robes tends to a tree. Patches of grass stud this quiet oasis, but it's the tree that consumes both the man's attention and the water he brings.

This is no ordinary city shrub: The tree sits inside Camp Cropper, a US-run prison at Baghdad's fortified airport. And the bespectacled keeper is no mere gardener: He is Saddam Hussein, former president of Iraq, a ruler with an iron fist, now reduced to being a recluse with a green thumb.

These are hard times for a man used to the perks of dictatorship, whose wish was others' command, and, if not carried out, sometimes their execution.

Nowadays, as Camp Cropper's number one inmate, Hussein, 67, is subject to the orders of US military personnel who guard him, and to the rigors of an institutional schedule that allows for showers just twice a week -- a blow for someone reputed to be so germ-conscious that he is reported to have asked visitors to disinfect their hands before meeting him.

Held in solitary confinement, Hussein whiles away his time reading, writing, and munching on muffins and cookies as he awaits trial on war crimes charges.

Such is the scene that Bakhtiar Amin, the human rights minister in Iraq's new government, describes having seen two weeks ago on a prison inspection tour that included Camp Cropper.

Amin's account is the first detailed public description of the former president's captivity, which the US military has kept cloaked in secrecy.

The lack of information has spawned rumors about Hussein that border on urban legends here. Among others, there are these: He has cancer. His heart's about to give out. He has gone blind.

Not so, said Amin. Doctors visit Hussein twice a day, and although he appears to have lost a little weight and he experiences bouts of nervousness, Amin described him as being "in very good condition."

"His health is nothing to worry about," Amin said in an interview, adding: "He will not escape trial."

The International Committee of the Red Cross has also visited Hussein, four times since February, to monitor his treatment behind bars. A spokeswoman for the organization declined to comment on how Iraq's most famous prisoner is faring, citing confidentiality rules.

But an independent source with knowledge of Hussein's status said he was receiving proper medical attention. Amin indicated in public remarks that the onetime despot has been treated for high blood pressure, a hernia and a persistent prostate infection.

US military officials still aren't talking about the shaggy, begrimed fugitive they pulled from a so-called spider hole in December, and they seemed to offer up an indirect rebuke of Amin for going public.

"That was a confidential briefing he received," said Army Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson, the spokesman for the US forces at Camp Cropper, which houses nearly 100 so-called high-value detainees of the toppled regime.

"If he chose to speak about it, that's his choice to make," Johnson said. "For operational reasons, we certainly can't talk about the conditions at the camp."

Eight months of confinement to a 10-by-13-foot cell has imposed an introspective lifestyle on Hussein, who is allowed three hours of exercise a day in the yard where he cares for the small tree.

"He put some stones around it, and he waters it," Amin said. "It's ironic when you see that, because Saddam is a person who decapitated hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of palm trees" in his campaign against Shiite Muslims, and their livelihoods, in southern Iraq."

Hussein is kept apart from his former henchmen in the camp, who mingle more freely, playing cards, backgammon, and chess to relieve the monotony of prison life, Amin said.

The former dictator is allowed to write letters in his air-conditioned, white-tiled cell, but they must pass through military censors before being delivered. For the Red Cross's most recent visit, on July 30, a member of the group picked up three letters to Hussein's family, said Nada Doumani, a spokeswoman for the organization.

Hussein appears to find solace in poetry and the Koran, which Amin scoffs at.

"It's incredible. A believer wouldn't put the blood of millions of Iraqis on his hands," he said. "He's an infidel."

Amin was quick to contrast the comparative comfort of Hussein's detention with the unspeakable cruelty seen in prisons during his regime. His surroundings are a cut above what regular prisoners endure; this is a point of resentment for Iraqis such as Suad Sabry, whose two sons are being held in southern Iraq on suspicion of posing a security threat.

Her sons must wear orange jumpsuits and live in tents in Camp Bucca, outside Basra, where temperatures can exceed 120 degrees. Medical attention is scant, said Sabry, who is 47.

No charges have been filed against either son, and no one in the family knows when they will be released.

Amin said: "People should be treated equally. High-level criminals shouldn't be privileged."

He would like to see all prisoners accorded the rights that Hussein and other inmates enjoy at Camp Cropper, which include a varied diet consisting of MREs (meals ready to eat), then a cooked lunch and dinner.

"They get rice, potatoes, vegetables, broccoli, fish or beef or chicken," Amin said. "They get also fruits such as apples, oranges, pears, plums. And they get tea, bottled water, ice."

In addition, Hussein requests, and receives, muffins and cookies.

But there are limits. "No cappuccino or latte," Amin said.

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