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Red Cross officials pay Saddam a visit

Baghdad, Feb. 21 (Reuters): The International Committee of the Red Cross visited former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein today for the first time since he was captured by US forces in Iraq in December, an ICRC spokeswoman said.

As is usual with ICRC visits to detainees, the organisation gave no details on Saddam’s health or conditions after the visit by a team that included a doctor and an Arabic speaker.

“The visit took place this morning Baghdad time,” the ICRC spokeswoman Antonella Notari said in Geneva.

The ousted Iraqi leader has been held by US forces since his widely publicised capture on December 13, which the US-led occupation authority hoped would help stabilise the country before handing back power to Iraqis by a June 30 deadline.

Iraq’s US governor Paul Bremer suggested in remarks broadcast today that it could take up to 15 months to hold elections in Iraq, risking putting Washington on a collision course with Iraq’s most powerful religious leader who wants only a brief delay in polls.

Notari said the visit to the 66-year-old Saddam took place in Iraq but did not say exactly where, under an agreement with US forces. Saddam wrote a message to be delivered to his family, Notari said.

Under the terms of the Geneva Convention covering prisoners of war, which Washington has said applies to Saddam, US forces were obliged to give the ICRC access to the former President.

After he was deposed in the US-led war in April, Saddam went on the run for eight months before his capture by American troops from a pit near his hometown of Tikrit.

Since then, the US administration has been struggling to ease attacks by Saddam loyalists and other guerrillas on US forces and Iraqi allies, as Washington prepares to hand over power to Iraqis in June.

The US timetable to hand over sovereignty to Iraqis by the end of June is set five months ahead of US presidential elections in which George W. Bush will be seeking re-election.

Bremer, speaking in an interview with the Dubai-based Al Arabiya television channel, said Iraq needed time to prepare for elections due to technical problems and other issues.

“These technical problems will take time to fix. The UN estimates somewhere between a year and 15 months,” Bremer said.

“There are real important technical problems... and elections are not possible as the secretary-general announced yesterday.”

Al Arabiya had been carrying Arabic translation of excerpts from the Bremer interview which said he had himself estimated that it could take that long for elections to be held.

UN secretary-general Kofi Annan has backed the US position that it would not be feasible to hold elections before the planned American handover of power to Iraqis on June 30.

Bush today reaffirmed US strategic interests in helping Iraq become a sovereign nation. “The establishment of a free Iraq will be a watershed event in the history of West Asia, helping to advance the spread of liberty throughout that vital region,” Bush said in his weekly radio address.

Iraq’s top Shia leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, seen as holding the key to Iraq’s political future, said in an interview published yesterday that any delay should be brief. Asked how long, he told Germany’s Der Spiegel: “It should not last long.”

Sistani had demanded direct elections before June 30 but recently agreed that polls required adequate preparations. Iraq’s majority Shias had protested by the tens of thousands in support of the reclusive Sistani’s call for early elections this year, and they could take to the streets again if he expresses displeasure with any of Bremer’s decisions.

The Americans hope for a smooth power transfer to Iraqis but the country is gripped by a relentless insurgency in which suicide bombers attack US troops and their allies in Iraqi police and security forces at will.

Four US soldiers were wounded and their Iraqi translator was killed today when gunmen ambushed their convoy south of Baghdad, the US army said.

Guerrilla bombings and shootings have killed 378 US troops since the war that toppled Saddam Hussein began in March.

The violence is set against fears that simmering sectarian and ethnic tensions could erupt into a conflict.

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