Sad­dam Hus­sein spokesman dies

TARIK AZIZ, 1936 -2015

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Pa­trick J. McDon­nell, J. Michael Kennedy and Liz Sly pa­trick.mcdon­nell @la­ McDon­nell re­ported from Beirut. Kennedy and Sly are for­mer Times staff writ­ers. Spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent Nabih Bu­los in Am­man, Jor­dan, con­trib­uted to this re­port.

Tarik Aziz, the once-un­flap­pable Iraqi diplo­mat, died of a heart attack in a hos­pi­tal in south­ern Iraq. He was 79.

Tarik Aziz, the once-unf lap­pable diplo­mat whose face be­came syn­ony­mous with the Iraqi regime of Sad­dam Hus­sein, has died, ac­cord­ing to re­ports Fri­day from Iraq. He was 79.

Aziz, who had been in cus­tody since sur­ren­der­ing to U.S. forces in 2003, died of a heart attack in a hos­pi­tal in south­ern Iraq, re­ported the Iraqi Su­mariyah news net­work, quot­ing lo­cal of­fi­cials.

Once a familiar fig­ure in news re­ports, staunchly de­fend­ing Hus­sein, he suf­fered a stroke in 2010 and had long been in poor health.

An Iraqi court sen­tenced Aziz to death in Oc­to­ber 2010 for the per­se­cu­tion of op­po­si­tion re­li­gious par­ties dur­ing the Hus­sein era. Some spec­u­lated that his Chris­tian faith and pleas on his be­half from the Vat­i­can and ex-Iraqi Pres­i­dent Jalal Tal­a­bani, a Kurd, may have saved him from hang­ing.

Af­ter his sur­ren­der to U.S. forces, Aziz sank into ob­scu­rity, sur­fac­ing only to at­tend one of the many lo­cally tele­vised tri­als that most Iraqis long ago stopped watch­ing.

But for most of the pre­vi­ous two decades, his owlish face had rou­tinely been broad­cast around the globe. Armed with im­pec­ca­ble English and a smooth man­ner, the cigar-smok­ing Aziz be­came the diplo­matic sym­bol of the Iraqi gov­ern­ment, the man Hus­sein de­ployed to con­vey his mes­sage to the world.

Aziz’s sta­tus as a Chris­tian in a Baathist regime dom­i­nated by Sunni Mus­lims — many from Hus­sein’s home town of Tikrit — con­trib­uted to Aziz be­ing some­what of an out­sider, de­spite his el­e­vated po­si­tion in Hus­sein’s in­ner cir­cle.

For­mer Sec­re­tary of State James A. Baker III once de­scribed him as a highly pro­fes­sional ne­go­tia­tor who “did a very good job with an ex­traor­di­nar­ily bad brief.” In­deed, one no­table mo­ment for Aziz in­volved Baker in 1991, when the two men sat across from each other try­ing to ne­go­ti­ate a way to avoid the first Gulf War af­ter Iraq’s in­va­sion of Kuwait.

Baker passed to Aziz a let­ter from Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush to Hus­sein. Aziz read the let­ter slowly then re­turned it, say­ing he would not de­liver it be­cause the lan­guage was in­ap­pro­pri­ate for ad­dress­ing a head of state. The war be­gan four days later.

Aziz was known as be­ing the ul­ti­mate “yes” man to the Iraqi pres­i­dent. An old joke in diplo­matic cir­cles has Hus­sein ask­ing Aziz the time. “What time would you like it to be?” comes the re­sponse.

He was born Mikhail Yuhanna on Jan. 6, 1936, in the vil­lage of Tell Kaif, near the north­ern Iraq city of Mo­sul, and was a mem­ber of the Chaldean Catholic sect. At some point he changed his name to Tarik Aziz, Ara­bic for “glo­ri­ous past.”

His fam­ily moved to Bagh­dad when he was a child. His fa­ther waited ta­bles in a sa­loon, and a 1990 pro­file of Aziz in the Lon­don Ob­server spec­u­lated that his mi­nor­ity reli­gion and poor sta­tion in life made him ea­ger to suc­ceed.

“Th­ese things al­ways af­fected his per­son­al­ity and made him look for a strong man to pro­tect him,” re­called an uniden­ti­fied Iraqi ex­ile.

That strong man was Sad­dam Hus­sein, who was mak­ing a name for him­self as a street tough will­ing to take on ri­vals with­out hes­i­ta­tion. Aziz, in con­trast, had a de­gree in English lit­er­a­ture from Bagh­dad Uni­ver­sity and taught brief ly be­fore tak­ing up jour­nal­ism.

Af­ter the col­lapse of the Baath Party’s first brief reign in 1963, the party splin­tered and Aziz, who did pro­pa­ganda work for the party, joined a fac­tion from Tikrit, a city in north-cen­tral Iraq. He met the up-and-com­ing Hus­sein, a Tikrit na­tive. Their re­la­tion­ship would span 40 years.

Hus­sein be­came pres­i­dent in 1979. In 1983, with the coun­try in the midst of a de­bil­i­tat­ing war with Iran, Aziz was made for­eign min­is­ter with the man­date to con­vince the world of the just­ness of Iraq’s cause. The task was made all the more dif­fi­cult be­cause Iraq had started the war and had used chem­i­cal weapons against the Ira­ni­ans.

Nonethe­less, Aziz largely suc­ceeded. The Amer­i­cans de­cided to help the Iraqis, view­ing the secular Bagh­dad regime as a buf­fer against Is­lamist Iran. The United States pro­vided Bagh­dad with top-se­cret spy satel­lite data that gave the Iraqis a sig­nif­i­cant ad­van- tage, though not enough to win the war.

The U.S al­liance with Hus­sein dur­ing the Iran-Iraq war is of­ten re­called bit­terly to­day in Iran, which suf­fered thou­sands of ca­su­al­ties from Iraqi chem­i­cal weapons at­tacks.

Aziz de­nied Iraq used chem­i­cal weapons and once laugh­ingly asked a re­porter, “Have you smelled any chem­i­cal gases here?” But he later be­came the first Iraqi of­fi­cial to ad­mit chem­i­cal agents had been used, while also charg­ing that the Ira­ni­ans em­ployed them first.

In a 1991 Cabi­net shake-up, Aziz be­came a deputy prime min­is­ter, a post he would hold un­til the U.S. in­va­sion of Iraq in 2003.

On the eve of the war, ru­mors be­gan to spread that Aziz had been as­sas­si­nated as he tried to flee the coun­try. To counter the story, Aziz made a dra­matic ap­pear­ance in mil­i­tary uni­form to prove he did not try to es­cape.

“I am car­ry­ing my pis­tol to con­firm to you that we are ready to fight the ag­gres­sors,” he said.

A lit­tle more than a month later, on April 24, 2003, he sur­ren­dered to U.S. forces.

Aziz was next seen in public, wear­ing pa­ja­mas and look­ing pale, when he tes­ti­fied for the de­fense at the trial of Hus­sein in 2006. But he was not him­self tried un­til April 2008, on charges of ex­e­cut­ing 42 mer­chants who had been ac­cused of extortion. In March 2009 he was con­victed and sen­tenced to 15 years in pri­son.

The fol­low­ing Au­gust he was sen­tenced to seven more years in pri­son for his part in the forced dis­place­ment of Kurds in north­ern Iraq, fol­lowed by the Oc­to­ber 2010 death sen­tence.

As his health re­port­edly de­te­ri­o­rated, his fam­ily re­peat­edly pleaded for him to be freed on com­pas­sion­ate grounds. The head of the Chaldean Church in Iraq, Cardinal Em­man­ual Delly, also urged his re­lease.

But the U.S. mil­i­tary said it was up to the Iraqi gov­ern­ment to au­tho­rize his re­lease, and the gov­ern­ment re­fused.

The As­so­ci­ated Press re­ported that Aziz is sur­vived by his wife, Vi­o­let; sons Ziad and Sad­dam; and daugh­ters Zeinab and Mayssa. Most of his fam­ily now re­sides in neigh­bor­ing Jor­dan, but his wife was able to visit Aziz be­fore he died, the AP re­ported, quot­ing an Iraqi of­fi­cial.

Karim Sahib AFP

A FAMILIAR FIG­URE IN NEWS RE­PORTS Armed with im­pec­ca­ble English and a smooth man­ner, Aziz be­came the diplo­matic sym­bol of the Iraqi gov­ern­ment, the man Sad­dam Hus­sein de­ployed to con­vey his mes­sage to the world.

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