The international Red Cross visited Saddam Hussein in jail for the first time Saturday, and the ousted dictator wrote a letter to his family that will be delivered once the United States confirms it does not contain any hidden messages to his followers.
The announcement of the visit came after the U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, cited U.N. estimates that it may take 15 months to arrange elections — far longer than demanded by leading Iraqi politicians.
The two-member International Committee of the Red Cross delegation, which included a doctor, spoke to Saddam privately at an undisclosed location in Iraq, spokeswoman Nada Doumani said. The announcement dispelled rumors the Americans had spirited Saddam out of the country following his Dec. 13 capture in a hole near Tikrit.
"The aim of this visit is to track and monitor the conditions of detention and treatment of the detainee," Doumani said from Amman, Jordan. "We want to see whether he is getting enough food and water and also to check his health condition and to give him the possibility to write a message to his family — which he did."
The visit was arranged after the Pentagon formally declared Saddam a prisoner of war last month because of his status as commander in chief of Iraq's military. As a POW, Saddam is entitled under the Geneva Conventions to certain rights, including visits by the international Red Cross and freedom from coercion of any kind during interrogations.
Saddam's letter, presumably to his daughters in Jordan, will be delivered after American authorities make sure it contains no instructions to his followers or other banned messages.
The international Red Cross made no statement about Saddam's health or conditions of confinement — routine practice for the Swiss-based organization. Doumani said the Red Cross would make periodic visits as long as Saddam remains in custody and discuss its findings with U.S. authorities.
The Red Cross has visited more than 10,000 prisoners in Iraq since March, even though fewer than 100 have been formally classified POWs, spokeswoman Antonella Notari said.
Red Cross operations in Iraq were curtailed, however, after a suicide bomber exploded a vehicle outside ICRC headquarters in Baghdad on Oct. 27. The bombing prompting the organization to evacuate its international staff.
The visit to Saddam came as the Americans and their Iraqi partners struggle to find a formula for constituting a new government to take power June 30. A plan to pick members of a new legislature through regional caucuses has been all but scrapped after the country's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, insisted that the lawmakers be chosen in a national election.
Shiites, believed to comprise about 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people, are anxious for a vote to affirm their power after decades of suppression by the Sunni Muslim minority.
On Saturday, a Sunni Muslim cleric, Sheik Dhamer al-Dhari, was shot dead while walking near his mosque, the Association of Muslim Scholars said. Al-Dhari's half-brother is secretary-general of the association, wich issued a statement last week cautioning against hasty elections.
On Thursday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan concurred with the Americans that an election by June 30 was impossible. The United Nations is hoping the Iraqi leadership will come up with a new formula for establishing a transitional government.
Washington favors expanding the U.S.-appointed, 25-member Iraqi Governing Council to rule the country until elections can be held.
Bremer, the U.S. administrator, told the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television station that the United Nations believed it could take up to 15 months to hold elections. The United Nations has announced no such estimate publicly.
Bremer cited the absence of election laws, voter lists and reliable census data as obstacles to a quick election. The remarks were made Friday and broadcast Saturday.
"These technical problems will take time to fix," Bremer said. "The U.N. estimates somewhere between a year and 15 months. It might be that it could be sped up a little bit. But there are real important technical problems as to why elections are not possible."
The Governing Council is divided on how to constitute a government and how soon elections could be held. Some see a delay of seven or eight months, while others say it would take at least a year to prepare for elections.
In a further obstacle to an agreement, the Kurds have submitted proposals to the draft interim constitution, due to take effect at the end of this month, guaranteeing broad autonomy for their self-ruled region. The demands included maintenance of their own "Kurdistan National Guard," parliament and tax system.
Iraqi and American authorities had hoped to keep the Kurdish issue out of the interim constitution and resolve the matter during deliberations on a permanent national charter set for next year. Bremer met Saturday with Kurdish leaders Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani to discuss the Kurdish demands.
Feisal Istrabadi, a member of the constitutional drafting committee, said "some people" — whom he would not identify — objected to putting the Kurdish demands in the interim constitution.
Separately, the brother of Ayatollah al-Hakim, who was assassinated in August, told the pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat in remarks published Saturday that al-Qaida was behind the killing.
Al-Qaida "wants to ignite sectarian conflict," Abdel Aziz al-Hakim said. "We (in the Iraqi Governing Council) have intelligence proving that they are heading in this direction."
Ayatollah al-Hakim was the leader of the largest Shiite party, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. He was killed by a car bomb as he left a mosque in the city of Najaf on Aug. 29. The blast killed more than 85 people.