By Michael Georgy
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Red Cross officials visited Saddam Hussein on Saturday for the first time since U.S. forces captured him in December and said they would pass on a letter he wrote for his daughters.
But the InternationaI Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) declined to give any details on the health or detention conditions of the former Iraqi president in keeping with its usual practice when visiting prisoners.
"He's detained in Iraq," the ICRC's spokesman in neighboring Jordan, Muin Kassis, said after the visit by a team that included a doctor and an Arabic speaker.
"(The team) spent enough time with the former Iraqi president where they were able to have a good comprehensive idea about the material conditions of the detention place and also about his health condition," said Kassis.
He said the meeting with Saddam, 66, took place in private and no representative from the U.S.-led administration in Iraq was present.
"We insist on having a meeting in privacy," said Kassis, adding there would be more visits to Saddam but no date had been set for the next one.
He said Saddam, who has three daughters, wrote to them on a "special form...used everywhere by prisoners of war and detained persons, where the person could write...news to reassure family members of his health condition, of his situation."
"Our delegates will definitely make sure that the family of the former president will receive the Red Cross message as soon as possible," said Kassis.
Under the terms of the Geneva Convention covering prisoners of war, which Washington has said applies to Saddam, U.S. forces were obliged to give the ICRC access to the former president.
Saddam has been held by U.S. forces since his widely publicized capture on December 13.
After he was deposed in April in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Saddam went on the run for eight months before his capture in a pit near his home town of Tikrit.
Despite his capture, U.S.-led forces still face daily and often deadly guerrilla attacks which Washington blames on Saddam supporters and foreign Islamic militants.
Four U.S. soldiers were wounded and their Iraqi translator was killed on Saturday when gunmen ambushed their convoy south of Baghdad, the U.S. army said.
Guerrilla bombings and shootings have killed 378 U.S. troops since the war that toppled Saddam began in March.
Iraq's U.S. governor Paul Bremer suggested in remarks broadcast on Saturday it could take up to 15 months to hold elections, risking a collision course with the country's most powerful religious leader who wants only a brief delay in polls.
A U.S. timetable envisages handing over sovereignty to Iraqis by the end of June without full elections being held.
Bremer said in an interview with the Dubai-based Al Arabiya television channel that Iraq needed time to prepare for elections due to technical problems and other issues.
"These technical problems will take time to fix. The U.N. estimates somewhere between a year and 15 months," said Bremer.
"There are real important technical problems...and elections are not possible as (U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan) announced yesterday."
Annan, who sent a fact-finding mission to Iraq this month, has backed the U.S. position that it would not be feasible to hold elections before June 30.
Bush on Saturday reaffirmed U.S. strategic interests in helping Iraq become a sovereign nation.
"The establishment of a free Iraq will be a watershed event in the history of the Middle East, helping to advance the spread of liberty throughout that vital region," Bush said in his weekly radio address.
Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, widely seen as holding the key to the country's political future, said on Friday any delay in arranging an election "should not last long."
Sistani had demanded direct elections before June 30 but recently agreed that polls required adequate preparations.
Iraq's majority Shi'ites had protested in their tens of thousands in support of Sistani's call for early elections, and they could take to the streets again if he expresses opposition to any of Bremer's decisions. (Additional reporting by Richard Waddington in Geneva and Andrew Hammond in Dubai)