BAGHDADOfficials overseeing Saddam Hussein told reporters Monday that the detained former Iraqi leader rules over his cell "with an iron fist."
"Saddam is a very powerful man with a larger-than-life presence, and when he's in that cell, there's no mistaking who's in charge," said a special-forces officer who commands the watch of Hussein at an undisclosed location in Iraq. "We gave Saddam a small bag of nuts. While he was asleep, the rats got into the nuts and ate some of them. In retaliation, Saddam caught one of the rats' young, tortured it, and left it strapped to the wall with dental floss for days. Then, after it was dead, he stuffed its severed head with nuts and paraded it around the cell to warn the other rats."
"But Saddam will also be kind to the vermin and occasionally toss them an almond to fight over," the officer said. "In this way, he teaches the rats both to love and to fear him."
According to a CIA official, the dictator "personally monitors" every inch of his 12'x11' cell.
"Nothing escapes Saddam's notice," the official said. "He's assembled a secret lice force to collect information and watch over the cell while he sleeps. At first, it seemed harmless, but the lice grew in number every day. Where once there were a couple, now there are thousands hiding in the folds of his sheets."
Although Hussein is isolated from the other detainees, the former ruler of Iraq makes frequent proclamations.
"Every day at around 6, he delivers his morning decree," the CIA official said. "He tells the cockroaches and other vermin in the cell that he will protect them against the oppressive Western devils and reward those who remain loyal. Then he usually sings. I once rapped on the bars with the butt of my rifle, but that just fired him up. He started cursing a blue streak at me and launched into a recitation of the "64 Rules Of Order" for the cell. Now I know to just let him tire himself out."
Sources say Hussein has brought an atmosphere of pageantry to his cell, by decorating it with slogans and iconic images. He drew a flag on the north wall with chalk and etched the slogan "God Punish The Oppressors" into the floor with a toothbrush handle. He used the black heel of his shoe to draw his portrait on the wall and shaped a 14-inch statue of himself out of chickpeas and chewed bread.
"When I gave him the chalk, I thought he was just going to tick off the days with it, but I guess I should have expected more from a man as ingenious as Saddam," an unnamed soldier said. "Now, he delivers his speeches in front of the flag. He tried to use his bed and blanket to make a roster and bunting once, but we said 'No way.' Yesterday we caught him standing on the toilet reading aloud from his memoirs. We told him to get down before he slipped and hurt himself."
Hussein appointed 12 cockroach ministers to his cabinet, but he has already had to execute nine of them for crimes ranging from sexual impropriety to inappropriate scurrying. He has named his pillow the Ba'ath Party Military Bureau Deputy Chairman and Head of National Monitoring Directorate, and uses this top party member to execute disloyal subjects.
"It's not unusual to see Saddam running around the cell whacking everything in sight with his deputy chairman," the soldier said. "He's awfully attached to that thing. Not everyone knows how sentimental Saddam is. When they took his bedding to be cleaned, he openly wept for the loss of his closest confidant."
Hussein has repeatedly refused weapons and contraband inspections.
"Most of the prisoners I've dealt with see the daily checks as routine," the soldier said. "But Saddam likes to complain about how we need evidence of wrongdoing before we can cross the cell's threshold."
Occasionally, guards have been forced to threaten Hussein with sanctions to get him to comply with inspections.
"Every couple of days, he refuses to let us look under his bed," an unnamed soldier said. "There's never anything under there, but sometimes he likes to make a big deal out of refusing."
Amnesty International spokesman Troy Jergins said sanctions have little effect on Hussein himself, and only harm the cell's other inhabitants.
"If you take away his cigars or his half hour of fresh air, you're only hurting his subjects," Jergins said. "When we take his privileges away, he flies into a rage, killing insects, cursing at the mice, and throwing his toiletries at the wall."
Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, a top U.S. army commander in Iraq, responded to concerns that Hussein wields too much power in his cell.
"Well, we keep a pretty tight watch on him," Odierno said. "Besides, this prison is just temporary. They'll be moving him when it's time for him to face the international tribunal for his atrocities. His pre-cell atrocities, that is."