Red Cross pays visit to Saddam in Iraqi prison

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The Independent Online

The international Red Cross visited Saddam Hussein in jail yesterday for the first time, and the ousted dictator wrote a letter to his family.

The two-member Red Cross delegation, which included a physician, spoke to Saddam in private at an undisclosed location in Iraq, according to a Red Cross spokeswoman, Nada Doumani. The announcement dispelled rumours that the Americans had spirited Saddam out of the country after his capture in December in a hole near Tikrit.

"The aim of this visit is to track and monitor the conditions of detention and treatment of the detainee," Ms Doumani said. "We want to see whether he is getting enough food and water, and also to check his health."

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

Saddam was allowed to send a written note to his family - presumably his daughters in Jordan.

The Red Cross made no statement about Saddam's health or conditions of confinement. Ms Doumani said the Red Cross would make periodic visits as long as Saddam remained in custody, but would give no further details.

Meanwhile, the US administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, cited UN estimates that it may take 15 months to arrange elections - far longer than demanded by leading Iraqi politicians. The Americans and their Iraqi partners are struggling to find a formula for constituting a new government to take power 30 June.

On Thursday, the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, agreed with the Americans that an election by that date was impossible. The UN is hoping the Iraqi leadership will come up with a new formula for establishing a transitional government.