The defence committee has tried over several months to obtain US permission to meet Saddam, whose whereabouts and condition have been kept secret since his capture on 13 December 2003.

The legal team - selected by the former president's wife and daughters just one day after Hussein's capture - is threatening to take legal action if its demands are not met.

In an interview with Aljazeera.net, Muhamad al-Rashdan, a senior defence committee member, said the lawyers had sent a request to the US authorities asking for a "date to meet with our client the Iraqi president".

"Otherwise, we will take the necessary legal measures against any US executive who tries to prevent us and our client from enjoying our legal rights."

"We gave the US administration a 20-day deadline to meet our demands" the Jordanian lawyer added.

Health check

The 20-member defence committee, including American Curtis Doebbler, also sent a letter to the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross asking for its assistance, as well as a report on Saddam's health since his capture.

"We have made several attempts to contact the American administration to activate the Geneva conventions, and to meet the Iraqi president and check on his health and conditions"

Letter from Saddam's
defence committee

"We have made several attempts to contact the American administration to activate the Geneva conventions, and to meet the Iraqi president and check on his health and conditions.

"The American administration has prevented us so far from meeting him," said the letter, which lists dates of messages sent to US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the Department of Defence and the State Department.

The letter from the chief defence lawyer, Jordanian Muhammad Rashdan, said the first request was on 14 December, the day after US troops captured Saddam near Tikrit in central Iraq.

"We cannot wait any longer. The life of the Iraqi president is in great danger, especially after the scandalous, barbaric and inhuman action in Abu Ghraib prison," the letter said.

Legal responsibility

Aljazeera.net also received a copy of a letter from Doebbler to the Defence Department saying that, according to law, the US administration was responsible for providing information on Saddam's status.

It cited the US Freedom of Information Act to request "access and copies of all records concerning the current whereabouts of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and all records concerning his medical condition since his capture.

"If my request is denied in whole or part, I ask that you justify all deletions by reference to specific exemptions of the act," Doebbler wrote, adding that he reserved the right to appeal any decision to withhold information.

"Delayed disclosure could threaten the physical safety of the former Iraqi president," the letter said.

"We have reason to believe that he may have suffered, or will suffer, torture or inhuman treatment based on the actions of American soldiers and contractors concerning other prisoners in Iraq."

Torture concerns

In a 3 June letter to Rumsfeld, Rashdan charged that "every day that passes without President Hussein being afforded access to his attorneys constitutes another violation of international law. We urge you to allow us access to our client at the earliest possible date."

The Abu Ghraib abuse scandal has
 raised concerns about Saddam

Fears over the possible ill treatment of the former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein have been spreading across the region after the Abu Ghraib affair.

"If this happened in Abu Ghraib to ordinary people, then we would like to know what kind of torture they used on Saddam’s bodyguard to lead them to his boss' hideouts" Abd al-Bari Atwan, editor-in-chief of the London-based Arabic newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi, told Aljazeera.net.

"What torture have Saddam Hussein and Iraqi officials suffered? God knows."

Rashdan also sent a separate message to French President Jacques Chirac urging him to "stand with international legislation" and prevent the "new illegitimate" Iraqi government putting Saddam on trial.

In an earlier interview with Aljazeera.net in March, Rashdan had said that US insistence on barring access to Saddam Hussein had made him suspicious that the ousted president was "in a very difficult condition".

Appeal to Pope

The family of the former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, who has been in US detention since April last year, has written to the Pope to demand news of his whereabouts, his daughter told the Italian weekly Roman Catholic on Wednesday.

"We had no news from him [Tariq Aziz] until the last week of June 2003"

Zainab Aziz, daughter of the former Iraqi deputy premier

Zainab Aziz said the family has not seen Aziz since his arrest 14 months ago.

"We had no news from him until the last week of June 2003, when we first received a letter from him, but we haven't seen him nor have we talked to him," Zainab said.

"We went to everyone. The Red Cross, humanitarian organisations ... Iraqi Christian organisations, the apostolic nuncios (papal representative) in Baghdad. We even wrote to the Pope," she said.

The 68-year-old Aziz was the only Christian member of the Iraqi Cabinet before the occupation of Iraq in 2003. He frequently met Pope John Paul II; the last time was in mid-February 2003, nearly a month before the beginning of the US-led war on Iraq.

The ailing Aziz surrendered to the Americans and has since been held at an undisclosed location. In his last letter to his family at the end of April, he said he was still in Iraq.

Secret detentions

Families of former Iraqi top officials share the same difficulty in knowing nothing about the fate of their relatives kept in US custody.

Liwaa Khalid al-Duri, son of the former Iraqi state minister Khalid al-Duri, told Aljazeera.net that his father and brother were arrested by US forces and kept in a secret location.

"We know nothing about them, we do not even know if they are inside or outside Iraq" he said.

"My father is a relative of Izzat Ibrahim, number one wanted man by the US occupation forces. They took my brother and imprisoned him, thinking that my father knows about Ibrahim and he would tell them if he sees his son imprisoned," Liwa al-Duri said.

"But that did not happen, simply because my father does not know."