Tariq Aziz, top aide to Sad­dam Hus­sein, dies in the hos­pi­tal


Tariq Aziz, the debonair Iraqi diplo­mat who made his name by staunchly de­fend­ing Sad­dam Hus­sein to the world dur­ing three wars and was later sen­tenced to death as part of the regime that killed hun­dreds of thou­sands of its own peo­ple, has died in a hos­pi­tal in south­ern Iraq, of­fi­cials said. He was 79.

Aziz died on Fri­day af­ter­noon af­ter he was taken to the al-Hus­sein hos­pi­tal in the city of Nasiriyah, about 320 kilo­me­ters (200 miles) southeast of Bagh­dad, ac­cord­ing to the pro­vin­cial gover­nor, Yahya alNas­siri. Aziz had been in cus­tody in a pri­son in the south, await­ing ex­e­cu­tion.

Aziz, the high­est-rank­ing Chris­tian in Sad­dam’s regime, was its in­ter­na­tional face for years. He was sen­tenced in Oc­to­ber 2010 to hang for per­se­cut­ing mem­bers of the Shi­ite Mus­lim re­li­gious par­ties that now dom­i­nate Iraq.

A Bagh­dad gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial con­firmed the death of Aziz. He spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause he was not au­tho­rized to talk to re­porters.

Al-Nas­siri, the gover­nor of Dhi Qar prov­ince where Nasiriyah is the cap­i­tal, said Aziz’s wife Vi­o­let had vis­ited him on Thurs­day in pri­son and spent about an hour with him. Aziz had suf­fered from di­a­betes and high blood pres­sure for a long time, and he was a chain smoker, the gover­nor added. Lo­cal Iraqi au­thor­i­ties on Fri­day told the fam­ily it can take Aziz’s body from the hos­pi­tal morgue.

The only Chris­tian among Sad­dam’s in­ner cir­cle, Aziz’s reli­gion res­cued him from the hang­man’s noose that was the fate of other mem­bers of the top regime lead­er­ship.

Af­ter he was sen­tenced to death, the Vat­i­can asked for mercy for him as a Chris­tian. Iraq’s pres­i­dent at the time, Jalal Tal­a­bani, then re­fused to give the death sen­tence his re­quired sig­na­ture, cit­ing Aziz’s age and reli­gion.

Al-Nas­siri said that Aziz was im­me­di­ately taken to the hos­pi­tal when the heart attack oc­curred. “The med­i­cal staff did their best to res­cue him, but they failed. It is God’s will,” he added.

Even be­fore he was sen­tenced, the ail­ing Aziz ap­peared to know that he would die in cus­tody. He had had sev­eral strokes while in cus­tody un­der­go­ing trial mul­ti­ple times for var­i­ous regime crimes.

“I have no fu­ture. I have no fu­ture,” Aziz told The As­so­ci­ated Press, look­ing frail and speak­ing with dif­fi­culty be­cause of a re­cent stroke, in a jail­house in­ter­view in Septem­ber 2010. At that stage, he had been sen­tenced to more than two decades in pri­son.

‘I wish Iraq and Iraqis well’

“I’m sick and tired but I wish Iraq and Iraqis well,” he said.

El­e­gant and elo­quent, Aziz spoke flu­ent English, smoked Cuban cigars and was loyal to Sad­dam to the last, even nam­ing one of his son’s af­ter the dic­ta­tor. His posts in­cluded that of for­eign min­is­ter and deputy prime min­is­ter, and he sat on the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Com­mand Coun­cil, the high­est body in Sad­dam’s regime.

His main role was as the regime’s go-to man to com­mu­ni­cate with the West. To the world, he was one of the most rec­og­niz­able faces from Iraq dur­ing Sad­dam’s rule: sil­ver haired, with a mus­tache and trade­mark dark-rimmed glasses. A skilled op­er­a­tor in the halls of the United Na­tions, he was the regime’s front-man in deal­ing with U.N. in­spec­tors try­ing to track and as­sure the dis­man­tling of Sad­dam’s weapons of mass de­struc­tion.

Courtly, Ar­tic­u­late, Ar­ro­gant and

Un­hesi­tant to Deny

His in­ter­locu­tors var­i­ously de­scribed him as courtly, ar­tic­u­late, ar­ro­gant and un­hesi­tant to make even the most pre­pos­ter­ous de­nials of ev­i­dence put be­fore him by in­spec­tors about weapons pro­grams.

“He didn’t agree with our ba­sic tasks and I didn’t agree with his tasks to hide and mis­lead us. But I think we re­spected each other,” Rolf Ekeus, head of the in­spec­tors from 1991 to 1997, later said of Aziz.

As bombs rained down on Bagh­dad dur­ing the U.S.-led 2003 in­va­sion, Aziz said of Amer­i­can forces, “We will re­ceive them with the best mu­sic they have ever heard and the best flow­ers that have ever grown in Iraq ... We don’t have candy; we can only of­fer them bul­lets.”

His free­dom ended shortly af­ter­ward. The U.S. mil­i­tary knocked on his door in Bagh­dad on April 24, 2003, and he sur­ren­dered with­out re­sis­tance.

Still, his promi­nence as an in­ter­na­tional spokesman — and his out­sider sta­tus as a Chris­tian in a Sunni Mus­lim-dom­i­nated regime — gave sup­port­ers fuel to ar­gue that he was not a real de­ci­sion­maker in Sad­dam’s regime and was less to blame in the tor­ture and bloody crack­downs it in­flicted on Iraqis.

Aziz was born to a Chaldean Catholic fam­ily in Tell Kaif, Iraq, in 1936. He stud­ied English lit­er­a­ture at Bagh­dad Col­lege of Fine Arts and be­came a teacher and jour­nal­ist. He joined the Baath Party in 1957, work­ing closely with Sad­dam to over­throw Bri­tish-im­posed monar­chy.

Sad­dam took charge in 1979. Aziz was deputy prime min­is­ter a year later, when at­tack­ers hurled a grenade at him in down­town Bagh­dad. Sev­eral peo­ple were killed; Aziz was in­jured. It was one of sev­eral at­tacks Sad­dam blamed on Iran — part of his jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the ex­pul­sion of large num­bers of Shi­ite Mus­lims and Iraq’s 1980 in­va­sion of Iran.

Aziz was in­stru­men­tal in restor­ing diplo­matic re­la­tions with the United States in 1984, af­ter a 17-year break. At the time, Wash­ing­ton backed Iraq as a buf­fer against Iran’s Is­lamic ex­trem­ism.

That changed af­ter Iraq’s in­va­sion of Kuwait in 1990. Aziz met in Jan­uary 1991 with then-Sec­re­tary of State James A. Baker in Geneva in a failed at­tempt to pre­vent the Gulf War, and the U.S. broke off ties with Sad­dam’s gov­ern­ment for good. He also met with the late Pope John Paul II at the Vat­i­can just weeks be­fore the March 2003 in­va­sion in a bid to stop it.

Years later in court, Aziz again de­fended Sad­dam.

A star de­fense wit­ness for his for­mer boss in 2006, a thin and pale-look­ing Aziz in check­ered pa­ja­mas — a far cry from the designer suits he once sported — in­sisted Sad­dam had no choice but to crack down in the Shi­ite town of Du­jail af­ter a 1982 shoot­ing attack on the pres­i­dent’s mo­tor­cade there blamed on Shi­ite op­po­nents.

“If the head of state comes un­der attack, the state is re­quired by law to take ac­tion,” said Aziz.

And in the trial of six for­mer Sad­dam of­fi­cials charged with the 1980s crack­down on Kurds that killed an es­ti­mated 100,000 peo­ple, Aziz claimed, “There was no geno­cide against the Kurds ... Those de­fen­dants were hon­est of­fi­cers who de­fended their coun­try and fought Iran.”

Aziz him­self stood trial in seven cases — nearly all on charges of crimes against hu­man­ity re­lated to Sad­dam’s cam­paigns against Shi­ite po­lit­i­cal par­ties and Kurds. He was con­victed in all but two, and sen­tenced to death by hang­ing in Oc­to­ber 2010 for his in­volve­ment in the for­mer regime’s bloody per­se­cu­tion of Shi­ites.


In this Mon­day, Nov. 26, 1984, file photo, late U.S. Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan, left, ges­tures while talk­ing with Tariq Aziz, who dou­bled as the Iraqi deputy prime min­is­ter and for­eign min­is­ter, in the Oval Of­fice at the White House, Wash­ing­ton.

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