Jailhouse Poet Saddam 'Ready to Die,' Lawyer Says

The former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein has resigned himself to being sent to the gallows. “I am ready to die,” he told his lawyer and confidant in an interview in his Baghdad prison. “I am not scared of execution.”

Saddam is expected to return to court Monday for the resumption of a chaotic trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity that has lasted almost seven months. “I do not attend this trial to spare my life,” he said. “I attend it to defend Iraq.”

Saddam, who refuses all visits from his family, was talking to Bushra Khalil, a Lebanese lawyer in her 40s who is the only woman he meets. In their meetings, Saddam often prefers to talk to her about poetry or international relations rather than the minutiae of the defense case.

Khalil told The Sunday Times of London of an intimate five-hour interview conducted with Saddam in his prison within the past few weeks.

He confided that he had no fear of death and seemed to have accepted his fate. “I took the decision to die the day I tried to assassinate Abdel Karim Qasim,” he said, referring to a botched coup against a former leader that forced him to flee the country in 1959. In Iraq, hanging is the customary form of capital punishment.

Khalil, who dresses immaculately in western clothes and does not wear a veil, is the only woman on the defense team. Since the trial began last October, two lawyers acting for Saddam's co-defendants have been killed. A third fled the country after an attempt on his life.

Khalil was taken from Baghdad airport to Saddam’s secret prison in a van with blacked-out windows. Saddam sat in a windowless hall measuring 36 feet by 16 feet with a guard in front of both entrances. A table and five chairs stood in the center. The guards left and Khalil could tell the building was close to the airport as she could hear planes taking off and landing.

She found Saddam in a resolute mood. “If the invasion happened again I would stay in Iraq. I was right to stay in my country with my people,” he told her, explaining why he had not fled when he had the chance.

He seemed fit and well. “I get on very well with my American bodyguards,” he said. “They are changed frequently but we get to know each other; I like them and we become friends.”

An Arabic-speaking American guard confirmed Saddam’s comment, telling Khalil: “His personality is very different from what we expected.”

Khalil is highly critical of the way the trial has been managed. “This court does not respect the rule of law and it is not independent,” she said. “The Americans are guiding the direction of the case and the decisions will inevitably be political.”

As a Shiite Muslim defending a widely hated Sunni dictator, Khalil has come under heavy criticism for representing him. But she is unrepentant, claiming that Saddam in power resembled other Middle Eastern presidents with ambitions to build a strong country.

Saddam was far more interested in discussing foreign affairs with her than his own trial. “Saddam said U.S. involvement in Iraq had bolstered Iranian military ambitions,” Khalil said. “He believes the Iranians know the United States will not attack Iran while they are entangled in the Iraqi conflict.”

According to Khalil, Saddam has been so isolated that he first saw the infamous Abu Ghraib prison photos when she produced them in court in April.

“I was scared as his eyes were focused so intensely on the pictures and I could see the shock on his face,” she said.

Khalil met Saddam soon after the bombing of the golden-domed mosque in Samarra in February. She had wanted to talk to him about the conduct of the trial but he did not want to discuss it. Instead he was worried about the latest events.

“In the second meeting we had more time and we spoke about different topics — the trial, international affairs and poetry. I gave him a book by [poet] Al-Mutanabbi and he was very happy to receive it as he had wanted to read it.”

During their last meeting, Saddam told her he had written a new epic work. “I didn’t have time to write poetry before,” the dictator said, “but now I have had the time to become a poet.”

From Ode to Iraq

By Saddam Hussein

My spirit is still standing firm and will not fall,

And in my body runs the blood of the great.

Oh Iraq you are crowned in the hear

And on the tongue you are the poem of the poets.

Oh Iraq misfortune has shaken your sword, so stand tall

And gather your strength without bearing a grudge.