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...

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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 who claim to represent him. And with the country in the grips of an insurgency that remains strong, predicting when Iraq’s most famous prisoner will be tried is no easier now than it was last Dec. 13, when he was pulled from his hiding spot in a spider hole near his hometown of Tikrit.

When Saddam appeared before an Iraqi court in July, some officials predicted a swift trial. Ever since, they have said October, November or by the end of the year. 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 a hundred times as some people want to do.”

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

U.S. officials with the Department of Justice’s Regime Crimes Liaison Office are advising the Iraqi Special Tribunal on bringing Saddam to trial. The Americans paid the tribunal’s budget of $75 million for 2004-05.

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

Trainers also face a dearth of qualified Iraqi prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges. If proper attorneys are found, they face a new risk: threats from the guerrillas, believed to be mostly Sunni Muslims like Saddam, 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.

“At various points in time they have had a number of judges who have since withdrawn,” said Hania Mufti, a spokeswoman for New York-based Human Rights Watch who has followed the case. “So that’s been a practical problem on the ground.”

That fact has been sobering for the Americans, who predicted Saddam’s capture would cripple the insurgency. They portrayed violence immediately after his capture as the last gasp of desperate loyalists.

“Saddam’s era is over,” Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said days after Saddam was captured. “But it takes time for people to accept the changes.”

Since then, 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 elections set for Jan. 30.

U.S. attention has also shifted to another figure — Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — believed to be leading the campaign of hostage-takings, beheadings and bombings that are victimizing Americans and Iraqis.

Al-Rubaie said officials suspect, however, that Saddam may have played a role in the continued insurgency. No links have been found between Saddam and al-Zarqawi, who has a $25 million bounty on his head.

“We have evidence that he has prepared for the military defeat and he has prepared his party for military resistance after the liberation,” al-Rubaie said. “And there is mounting evidence that he has put in motion and put in place a mechanism and capabilities — money, planning, training — to start immediately after the liberation.”

Steven Metz, an expert on guerrilla warfare at the Army War College, said that while the U.S. military has done an efficient job of hunting down insurgents, that’s a small part of the solution.

“Most of the problems that have emerged are due to the fact that insurgency is only 25 percent or so military and 75 percent political, economic, and psychological,” Metz wrote in an e-mail exchange. “The dilemma is that no agency of our government is clearly in charge of and configured for those other vital efforts. The military has done what it can in those realms, but this is only a partial solution.”

Sitting at an ice-cream parlor near downtown Baghdad, a 72-year-old man who gave his name as Abu Mohammed rested his chin in his palm and considered the time that has passed since he saw Saddam on television, in U.S. custody, being checked for lice.

“The Americans did nothing for the Iraqis. In the past, the Americans would walk in the streets and talk with the people, but all that has disappeared,” he said. “They are not welcome in the streets anymore.”

At a nearby tailoring shop, the proprietor, Abu Mariam, shrugged when asked about the effect of Saddam being behind bars. “They got Saddam. So what?” he said. “Even though he’s in the jail, the terrorists are still outside.”

Saddam appeared before the Iraqi 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.

Eleven other defendants were arraigned with him.

From Saddam’s standpoint, little headway has been made since. He is said to have a 20-member legal team with lawyers from Belgium, Britain, France, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya and Tunisia, but has met none of them. A lawyer was supposed to meet him for the first time last Wednesday, but the U.S. military canceled it.

“Denying him this right is a serious breach of international protocols,” Saddam’s lawyers, who were appointed by Saddam’s wife, Sajida Khairallah Telfah, said in a statement yesterday.

The Jordan-based team called for Saddam’s immediate release, calling his detention “illegal right from the very beginning.”

“We are extremely disappointed,” said Ziad al-Khasawneh. “Nobody knows anything, except God and the American administration.”

Yesterday, a lawyer said some high-profile detainees have started a hunger strike to protest their detention. A U.S. military official confirmed that some had been turning back their main meals but continue to snack on MREs (meals ready to eat).

“They don’t acknowledge the legality of their trials or their detention,” said the lawyer, Izzat Aref, an Iraqi appointed by the family of former Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz.

Some Iraqis said the process has been politicized. Speculation once swirled that Saddam would be hastily tried and executed during the hubbub of the U.S. election. Salem Chalabi, the tribunal director, was abruptly ousted in September; he accused Prime Minister Ayad Allawi of pushing for show trials to boost his popularity ahead of the Jan. 30 elections.

“Saddam could reveal very important information and his trial could become a lesson not only for the Iraqi people but for history and humanity,” said Entifadh Qanbar, spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress party, led by Chalabi’s uncle Ahmad Chalabi. “Unfortunately, this opportunity is going away, and this court is losing its credibility.”

The court lost a partner when the United Nations refused to help train judges because the world body will not cooperate with courts that can impose the death penalty.

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

He receives regular visits from the Red Cross, which passes letters from him to his family. He gets out of his cell — which is 12 feet by 15 feet — twice a day for recreation, which includes exercising and tending plants, 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 also has an enlarged prostate, which isn’t an immediate concern.

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 said. “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. Material from Knight Ridder Newspapers is included in this report.