January 21, 2007 / 6:48 AM / 12 years ago

Saddam Hussein read, gardened, fed birds in custody

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - While in U.S. custody, former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein smoked cigars, watered a few weeds and reminisced about happy times when his children were young, a nurse who cared for him told the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

Robert Ellis, interviewed at his home in Normandy, Missouri, told the newspaper in an article published on Sunday that from January 2004 to August 2005 he was the senior medical advisor at a compound near Baghdad where Saddam and other important detainees were jailed.

A colonel told Ellis: “Saddam Hussein cannot die in U.S. custody. You do whatever you have to do to keep him alive,” the newspaper reported.

“That was my job: to keep him alive and healthy so they could kill him at a later date,” said Ellis, 56, an operating room nurse at St. Joseph Health Center in St. Charles, Missouri.

“I knew all along what they were going to do. This went against my grain as a nurse, but as a soldier — well, that was my job,” said Ellis.

During his tenure at the prison, Ellis said that he checked in on Saddam regularly and got to know him.

When Saddam was allowed outside for a short time, he fed birds bits of bread that he had saved from his meals and watered some weeds.

Saddam told Ellis about spending time with his three daughters and two sons when they were young, telling them bedtime stories and giving a daughter medicine when her stomach hurt.

Ellis said Saddam went on a hunger strike and refused to eat when the guards used to slide his food through a slot at the bottom of the door. But when they began opening the door to bring his food in, he began eating again.

“He refused to be fed like a lion,” Ellis said.

Saddam, who was executed last week, defended his rule in discussions with his U.S. jailers.

“One day when I went to see him, he asked why we invaded. Well, he made gestures like shooting a machine gun and asked why soldiers came and shot up the place,” said Ellis. “He said everything he did was for Iraq.”

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