Saddam's trial date, prospects uncertain

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- In the year since he was captured and hustled away to a secret location, Saddam Hussein has taken up gardening, undergone a hernia operation and written poetry that one visitor describes as "rubbishy."

What he has not done is meet with any of the 20 lawyers claiming to represent him. And with the country in the grips of an insurgency, predicting when Iraq's most famous prisoner will be tried is no easier now than it was on the day he was pulled from his hiding spot in a spider hole near his hometown of Tikrit.

When Saddam first appeared before an Iraqi court in July, some officials predicted a swift trial. Ever since, they have said October, November or December. Now, they expect it no earlier than the beginning of 2006, Iraq's National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie told The Associated Press.

"This is going to be probably the trial of the century and we have to get it right," al-Rubaie said. "We can't suddenly try him and sentence him to either life in prison or whatever, execute him 100 times as some people want to do."

Officials say the work of gathering evidence -- documents, mass grave sites, testimony from victims -- continues away from the public eye and beyond the reach of the insurgents. They insist it is being done meticulously and legitimately.

But with elections approaching Jan. 30, the Iraqi government is in flux and likely to stay that way until a new constitution is drafted and another round of elections is held in December 2005.

Trainers also face a dearth of qualified Iraqi prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges. If proper attorneys are found, they assume a new kind of risk -- threats from the guerrillas or others trying to stymie the trial.

Few Iraqi lawyers are willing to represent Saddam, while prosecutors fear challenging him. The same goes for the judges overseeing the case, slowing its work.

No end to insurgency

That fact has been sobering for the Americans, who predicted Saddam's capture would cripple the insurgency. But the guerrillas have continued exacting a bloody toll against U.S. troops and their Iraqi allies.

The United States is increasing troop levels to 150,000, higher than they were when the war began, in hopes of providing safety for next month's elections.

Saddam first appeared before the court July 1, without a lawyer. He was presented with seven preliminary charges that included gassing thousands of Kurds in 1988, the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the suppression of 1991 revolts by Kurds and Shiites, the murders of religious and political leaders and the mass displacement of Kurds in the 1980s.

In the meantime, Saddam seems to have settled into a humdrum existence behind bars.

He receives regular visits from the International Committee of the Red Cross, which passes letters from him to his family. He gets out of his 12 feet by 15 feet cell twice a day for recreation, said al-Rubaie, who visited him three months ago.

Saddam also had a hernia operation and his blood pressure varies, a U.S. official said.

He is said to be writing a novel, "Get Out, You Damned," excerpts of which have appeared in a London-based Arab newspaper, and has written poetry.

"I can tell you one thing, they're really the most rubbishy poems on Earth," al-Rubaie told AP. "Even I could write poems in English better than he could in Arabic."

Associated Press reporter Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.