Saddam's day: gardening, reading and eating muffins

Posted in Iraq | 26-Jul-04 | Author: Michael Howard| Source: Guardian

Former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, pictured here during a court appearance in Baghdad, spends his time in prison gardening, writing poetry and snacking on American muffins and cookies
· First account of Iraqi despot's life in jail
· He is in good health but 'demoralised'

Saddam Hussein is spending his time in solitary confinement writing poetry, gardening, reading the Qur'an and snacking on American muffins and cookies. One of his poems is about his arch-enemy George Bush.

The intriguing glimpse of the former dictator's daily routine as he awaits trial on charges of war crimes and genocide was given to the Guardian yesterday by Iraq's human rights minister, Bakhtiar Amin, who visited Saddam in detention on Saturday.

Mr Amin, a longtime Iraqi human rights campaigner who had family members killed by the former regime, said he could not bring himself to speak to Saddam but observed that he was "in good health and being kept in good conditions".

However, Mr Amin said the former president "appeared demoralised and dejected".

Saddam is being held in a white-walled air-conditioned cell, three metres wide and four metres long, Mr Amin said. He is kept apart from the other prisoners, who can mix freely with each other during the daily three-hour exercise periods.

Since appearing in court, Saddam had taken to reading the Qur'an and writing poetry, Mr Amin said. "One of the poems is about George Bush, but I had no time to read it."

Saddam's health was "generally good" but he was being treated for high blood pressure and had suffered a chronic prostate infection for which he had received antibiotics. The former president had refused a biopsy to test for signs of cancer.

Mr Amin said Saddam "was regaining weight again" after a self-imposed diet in which he "resisted all fatty foods and had lost 11lb".

Like the other high-value detainees, Saddam's day begins with a substantial breakfast, an MRE (meal ready to eat), which provides 1,300 calories. He also gets hot food twice a day, which could consist of rice or potato and broccoli, along with either fish, beef or chicken. For dessert, there might be oranges, apples, pears or plums, but the former leader has developed a penchant for American snacks such as muffins and cookies.

There is regular access to showers and a barber, and a personal grooming kit that includes soaps, toothpaste, comb, shampoo and deodorant, and plastic sandals.

For relaxation there are no newspapers, TV or radio, but there are 145 books - mainly novels and travel books - donated by the Red Cross, which visits the detainees every six weeks.

Mr Amin said Saddam works out in his cell and then uses the daily exercise period to tend a small garden in an outside yard.

"He is looking after a few bushes and shrubs and has even placed a circle of white stones around a small palm tree," said Mr Amin, a Kurd from Kirkuk, who is the first member of Iraq's new interim government to visit Saddam. "His apparent care for his surroundings is ironic when you think he was responsible for one of the biggest ecocides when he drained the southern marshes."

In televised proceedings on July 1, Saddam and 11 other former regime members were arraigned in a Baghdad courtroom on charges that include killing rival politicians, gassing Kurds in Halabja, invading Kuwait and suppressing Kurdish and Shia uprisings in 1991.

Mr Amin said the prisoners were technically under Iraqi jurisdiction but would remain at the US military prison until Iraqi authorities are ready to take physical custody of them.

US and Iraqi officials have said that the former president has not provided extensive information during interrogation. Some of Saddam's aides have been more cooperative.

They include Ali Hassan al-Majid, also known as Chemical Ali, who reportedly gave the orders to use chemical weapons against Kurds in the late 1980s; Hussein's half-brother, Barzan al-Tikriti; as well as Hussein's influential personal secretary, Abid Hamid Mahmud al-Tikriti.

Mr Amin said that during his visit he was approached by Barzan al-Tikriti, who was standing next to Ali Hassan al-Majid. "Mr Minister, what am I doing here?" Mr al-Tikriti said. "I am not like the others, I am not like Ali Hassan al-Majid. Please tell that to [the Kurdish leaders] Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani and to Ayad Allawi [the new prime minister]."

Mr al-Tikriti was once head of Saddam's intelligence service and is suspected of involvement in the murder of several thousand members of the Barzani clan in the 1980s. "I tried to control my emotions, but to be honest I wanted to vomit," Mr Amin said.

"There before me were the men responsible for the industrial pain of Iraq - mass murderers who were responsible for turning Iraq into a land of mass graves."

But he insisted: "There will be a just trial and a fair trial, unlike the trials that he inflicted on his enemies, on the Iraqi people."