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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

From a Life of Privilege to Showers Twice a Week

August 07, 2004|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

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 U.S.-run prison at Baghdad's fortified airport. And the bespectacled keeper is no mere gardener: He is former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, a ruler with an iron fist reduced to a recluse with a green thumb.

These are unaccustomed hard times for a man used to the perks of dictatorship, whose wish was others' command, and sometimes their execution.

Nowadays, as Camp Cropper's No. 1 inmate, the 67-year-old Hussein is subject to the orders of U.S. military personnel who guard him and to the rigors of an institutional schedule that allows for showers just twice a week -- a blow to someone so germ-conscious that he reputedly used to ask 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 prosaic scene that Bakhtiar Amin, the human rights minister in Iraq's new government, describes seeing two weeks ago on a prison inspection tour that included Camp Cropper. Amin is the only official to give such a detailed public description of the former president's captivity, which the U.S. military has kept cloaked in secrecy.

The lack of information has spawned rumors about Hussein's condition that border on urban legends here. He has cancer. His heart's about to give out. He's gone blind.

Not so, said Amin. Doctors visit Hussein twice a day, and although he appears to have lost a little weight and 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 confirmed that 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.

U.S. military officials still aren't talking about the shaggy, begrimed fugitive they pulled from a 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 U.S. Army Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, the spokesman for American 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.

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. During the Red Cross' 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.

One of the letters was addressed to Hussein's teenage grandson Ali Hussein Kamel, living in Jordan. The youth appeared on Al Arabiya satellite television Monday to explain how his grandfather had urged him to be strong.

"He asked me to take care of my family," Ali told the channel. "He recommends that I be a man like my father and uncle, a man who can be trusted, and also to be the man of the family."

The letter apparently did not remind Ali that Hussein had ordered the execution of the boy's father and uncle in 1996. The two men, Hussein's sons-in-law, had defected to Jordan the year before, and for reasons that are hard to fathom, returned to Iraq several months later and threw themselves on their father-in-law's mercy, not known for being abundant.

Hussein shows no evidence of regret or depression over past actions, at least not to the degree of wanting to talk it out with the prison psychologist.

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