For Hussein, palace becomes a prison

Ousted leader, held alone near a former residence, refuses to show remorse

September 19, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Nine months after American troops pulled him disheveled and disoriented from an underground bunker near his hometown of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein is living in an air-conditioned 10-foot-by-13-foot cell on the grounds of one of his former palaces outside Baghdad, tending plants, proclaiming himself Iraq's lawful ruler, and reading the Quran and books about Arab glory.

American and Iraqi officials who have visited the former Iraqi leader say he wears plastic sandals and an Arab dishdasha robe, eats American soldiers' ready-to-eat meals for breakfast, and is allowed three hours of exercise a day in a courtyard outside his cell. He has been flown by Black Hawk helicopter to an American military hospital in Baghdad, where doctors ran tests for an enlarged prostate.

He has undergone hours of interrogation by investigators preparing evidence for his trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.

But he has refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing or show remorse for the hundreds of thousands of people killed during his 24-year dictatorship, officials say. He has insisted that his position as Iraq's president gave him legal authority for all he did and that his victims were "traitors." At every encounter, the officials say, he insists that he is still the constitutionally elected president.

More than 80 other "high-value detainees" at the same prison - including more than 40 who were in the Pentagon's "deck of cards" of Iraq's most-wanted fugitives - are kept from Hussein, said Bakhtiar Amin, the Iraqi human rights minister. Hussein has been in solitary confinement since his capture Dec. 13, officials said, because of a fear that he would try to rig evidence or intimidate old associates.

The core of the group - 11 men who appeared with Hussein in court July 1 - are allowed to exercise together and play chess, poker, backgammon and dominoes. Despite those privileges, they have faced indignities Hussein has been spared, including digging their own latrines.

But the strict protocol favored by authoritarian regimes still rules. "They call each other by their old titles, Mr. Minister of this, Mr. Minister of that," Amin said. "It is as if nothing has changed."

When Hussein appeared in court to be advised of his legal rights and of the charges under investigation, officials said it could be at least two years before he was brought to trial. The other former officials who appeared with him are not likely to face trial for at least a year, they said.

But the interim government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi has decided to accelerate the legal processes. It has begun to a shake-up of the staff at the tribunal set up last year to hear the cases, and it hopes to begin the first high-profile trial - probably against Ali Hassan al-Majid, a cousin of Hussein's known as Chemical Ali - by November. Hussein's trial will follow, perhaps next year if the prosecutors are ready, Iraqi and American officials say.

In prison, Hussein has asked for some vestiges of the pleasures he enjoyed when he moved among dozens of palaces.

"This was a man whose regime used a shredder to turn human bodies into ground beef," said Amin, the 46-year-old rights minister, who spent years abroad as an exile chronicling the abuses of Hussein's government and petitioning foreign governments and rights organizations to shun the Iraqi government.

"And now he sits there in his cell and asks for muffins and cookies and cigars," he said.

Hussein and his top lieutenants are being held at Camp Cropper, a compound behind walls topped with razor wire, beneath watchtowers manned by soldiers with machine guns. The camp lies within the vast complex of American headquarters known as Camp Victory, which includes a network of palaces. Planes using Baghdad International Airport pass low over the prison, 10 miles from the center of Baghdad.

Courtrooms are being set up in a building at the former Republican Palace compound in the Green Zone, the area of Baghdad that houses headquarters for the Allawi government and for 2,500 American military and civilian officials. The five-judge panels that will preside at the trials will have the power to impose death sentences on Hussein and his associates, some of whom wept when they were told at the July hearing that they could face execution.

For Hussein and his victims, a trial in the new court building - which The New York Times was asked not to identify for security reasons - will hold a certain irony. Hussein, who favored an architectural style emphasizing huge sandstone columns and portals, will be tried in one of the buildings he erected to glorify his rule. In the dock, he will be a short walk from the Republican Palace, once his main seat of power.

In his cell, Hussein has a fold-up bed, a small desk and a plastic chair, a supply of bottled water and ice, a prayer mat and a choice of more than 170 books from a library supplied by the International Committee of the Red Cross. He sleeps a lot, officials said, and reads Arabic-language books with a pair of thick-rimmed spectacles.

Amin said Hussein had been denied access to newspapers, radio and television, and thus knew little about political events in Iraq since his capture. But he said the former ruler was upset when he was told that a prominent Sunni tribal leader, Sheik Ghazi al-Yawar, had been named by the United States to replace him as president.

"He was shaken, and he was very upset," Amin said. "He couldn't accept that. He's a megalomaniac and a psychotic. He has never expressed any remorse for any of his victims. He is a man without a conscience. He is a beast."

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