Saddam Hussein is in good health, but unrepentant, according to a lawyer who spent more than four hours with the deposed Iraqi leader last week. The former president praised the resistance to the U.S.-backed government and believes the forthcoming elections are illegal, according to Khalil al-Duleimi, who spoke exclusively to NBC News.
Al-Duleimi, an Iraqi lawyer and member of the Defense and Support Committee for Saddam Hussein, met Saddam on Thursday and discussed his situation during a brief stopover Sunday in Amman, Jordan, where he was briefing the other members of the Defense Committee. He declined to be photographed for security reasons.
You were appointed six months ago to represent Saddam Hussein but you were only able to meet him for the first time as his lawyer last week. How difficult has it been to receive authorization to see your client?
I waited months before receiving permission. Originally, the current Iraqi government told me that I could finally visit the president on Dec. 8 but the meeting was postponed. No reason was given. Then two days before the approved meeting, the Iraqi Lawyers Association informed me that authorization was given and I was told where to go. My meeting was scheduled for 9:30 in the morning.
Can you tell us any details about the meeting?
For security reasons I cannot give you any specific details. However, I can say an American military convoy made of several army cars picked me up. I entered what appeared to be a Humvee that had no windows. American soldiers escorted me.
I do want to say right away that the American escorts treated me with respect. They never searched me and they seemed to want to facilitate my mission with the president. For this, I would like to thank the Americans.
Do you know if you were taken to a prison?
I do not know at all where I was taken. I could see nothing from the vehicle. We drove for about an hour and just before we arrived at our destination we drove through a long tunnel that led us to my meeting point with the president.
Were there any restrictions on your meeting with Saddam?
I was told there should be no physical contact with the president. I could not embrace him and was instructed to only shake his hand. I could not accept this because Saddam Hussein is my president and I insisted on being able to accord him full respect. I negotiated with an American general and I convinced them to allow me to embrace and salute the president.
This was Saddam's first meeting with any members of his legal representatives. Can you describe his physical and mental state?
The president was in very good health and high spirits. He looked much better than his first court appearance last July 1. He has lost some weight and his face has aged. He has a thick beard and his hair is very long. He was wearing a shirt, sweater and pants and was carrying a coat in his left hand and a notebook in the other hand. We sat across from one another in a room about four-by-two meters. A table separated us and there was an American soldier present at all times. A new soldier was rotated in every half hour during our four-and-a-half hour meeting.
The president began our meeting reciting a poem that he wrote himself. He used an Arabic expression, “If you can’t be the head don’t be the tail, because the tail represents the end of everything.”
The Defense Committee has been working on Saddam’s behalf for months. You have a team of international lawyers. Did he know he had legal representation?
This was the first time the president learned that there is a very large team of lawyers from around the world working on his behalf. He has been living in total isolation for the past year. He has no access to media or any of the other prisoners. He was very happy to hear that we are working and supporting him and he asked me to express his great appreciation. The president urged the committee to launch a full legal, political and media defense on his behalf. He gave us full powers to act as it sees necessary.
Most importantly, he condemned the role of the International Red Cross Society. He received four visits from the ICRC and he was very disappointed with them. He accuses the ICRC of being irresponsible and not dealing with his rights as outlined under the Geneva Convention. He had asked the representatives what was his status. Was he a prisoner of war? A detainee? He received no answer so he told the Red Cross representatives he would not receive them again until he was treated fairly under the Geneva Convention.
Has Saddam had any contact with his family?
He has no physical contact with his family. He has only received very few letters ,which are largely blacked out so he cannot understand anything.
What did Saddam want to know and what message did he want to deliver through you?
He asked many questions about the Iraqi people and their condition under occupation. I told him the situation and he praised the resistance in Iraq and he said the Iraqi people should resist the U.S. occupation in Iraq. He also asked about the Palestinian people and the conditions of Arab people in general.
Does Saddam know about the first Iraqi elections to be held in January?
He did not know; and even when I told him he does not believe in the legitimacy of the elections. He does not believe in these elections. He still believes he is the true president of Iraq and the elections are illegal.
As far as his defense strategy is concerned, did he give you any specific instructions?
The president stressed the need for us to defend all the detainees and all those who are harmed by the occupation. He confirmed the need to keep continuous contact with popular and governmental organizations to make the world aware of the illegality of the U.S. occupation of Iraq and his situation. He stressed the need for the international community to intervene and he condemned how he is being treated and tried.
What is the next step in the trial of Saddam? Will you have access to him again?
I just had the first meeting and it was a good one. I expect to see my client again but cannot say when. No formal charges have been laid against the president. It is very difficult to work.
You have accepted to represent Saddam, who is accused of grave war crimes against humanity. You are an Iraqi lawyer and the only member of the Defense committee that has been given access to him. Just how difficult and dangerous has your task been to represent him?
The job is very, very dangerous. I have received many death threats and less than two weeks ago, there was an assassination attempt on my life in one of the Baghdad districts. I was in a car when I came under fire from just 50 meters away. The car took 12 bullets but no one was hurt. As an Iraqi and a lawyer, I believe it’s my duty to defend President Saddam Hussein. He is and always will be my president.