Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi foreign minister and deputy prime minister who for decades was the most public face of Saddam Hussein’s government on the world stage, died on Friday in Nasiriya, Iraq, where he had been imprisoned. He was 79.
Adel Aldikhaly, the deputy governor of Nasiriya, said Mr. Aziz had had a heart attack after “a long-term incurable disease” and was transferred from prison to a hospital, where he was declared dead.
Mr. Aziz was a committed Arab Nationalist and Baath Party stalwart whose closeness to Mr. Hussein long predated the strongman’s rise to power. It was said that he was so devoted to Mr. Hussein that he would salute when speaking with him on the telephone.
To American and British viewers of television news, he was the familiar and defiant face of a government at war with the West, first in 1991, then during the American-led bombardment and invasion of 2003 — a figure instantly recognizable by his oversize eyeglasses and love of cigars.
Perhaps more than anyone else, Mr. Aziz, in his fluent English, was able to articulate Mr. Hussein’s often contorted rationales for policies and positions that often eluded Westerners.
He accurately foresaw some of the havoc the 2003 invasion would wreak in the region. Less than two months before the bombing started, while visiting Pope John Paul II, he urged European countries not to join the march toward war, saying, “It will be interpreted by the Arab and Muslim world as a crusade against the Arabs and against Islam.”
The American claim that Iraq harbored unconventional weapons was, he said, an “invented scenario” and a “bad American movie.”
In the American “deck of cards” of wanted officials from Saddam Hussein’s government, Mr. Aziz was designated the eight of spades and ranked relatively low on the list — No. 43 of the 55 officials — because he was not believed to have substantive information on the location of weapons or on the whereabouts of Mr. Hussein in the weeks after he fled Baghdad.
Mr. Aziz was sentenced to death in 2010 for “the persecution of Islamic parties,” including that of the prime minister at the time, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, the Dawa Party. But it was never clear what Mr. Aziz had done personally to merit the charge, although he had clearly been a fervent supporter of a despotic and ruthless government.
In interviews in his own defense, Mr. Aziz said that no one had ever accused him specifically. And his defense lawyers asserted that he had been responsible only for Iraq’s diplomatic and political relations — that he had had no ties to the executions and purges carried out by Mr. Hussein’s government.
Even some who became opponents of Mr. Hussein’s government defended Mr. Aziz. Hassan al-Alawi, who was a senior Baath Party member when Mr. Hussein took power but who later fled into exile and then returned after the United States invasion, described the death sentence against Mr. Aziz as payback — a “retaliatory” gesture for his role as foreign minister in gathering international support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war.
“Mr. Aziz is innocent, and the death sentence was unfair,” Mr. Alawi said.
He said he believed that the authorities had not carried out the sentence knowing that Mr. Aziz was sick and likely to die in jail.
In the early days of the Hussein government, Mr. Aziz had relatively good relations with the United States, serving as a buffer between his government and the Reagan administration as it sought to navigate the twists and turns in the Iraqi-American relationship. American relations with Iraq were far closer after the Iranian revolution in 1979 than they were by 1990, after President George Bush had entered the White House.
Before the first American-led invasion of Iraq in 1991, Mr. Aziz tried to justify Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, saying that it resulted from a failure by Kuwait to reduce oil production and that it appealed to Arab nationalist sentiment.
Kuwait’s increased production was bringing down oil prices, he said, costing Iraq billions of dollars every year. The Iraqis, he said, viewed that as part of a conspiracy to damage their country.
It was “a deliberate conspiracy against Iraq, by Kuwait, organized, devised by the United States,” Mr. Aziz said in an interview for a “Frontline” oral history series on PBS.
He believed that the interests of the United States were driven by its desire to control Iraqi oil and support Israel, and he promulgated that view throughout the 2003 invasion.
During the American invasion, even as Iraqi troops were crumbling in the south and bombs were falling on Baghdad, Mr. Aziz put on a show of invincibility, assuring the few international news organizations that were still in Baghdad that Iraqi troops were standing firm.
Like his boss, Mr. Aziz was above all an Arab nationalist, who fervently believed his path and that of Mr. Hussein would bring Iraq to power in the region. In an interview in prison in 2010 he told The Guardian that he would not speak of his regrets until he was released.
“I am proud of my life because my best intention was to serve Iraq,” he said.
But he expressed regret about being in prison. If he could change one thing, he said, he would have been “martyred” rather than have surrendered. Although he allowed that he did get something enormously important to him: the protection of his family.
“The war was here, and Baghdad had been occupied,” he said. “I am loyal to my family, and I made a major decision: I told the Americans that if they took my family to Amman, they could take me to prison. My family left on an American plane, and I went to prison on a Thursday.”
His son helped to arrange his surrender to the Americans on April 24, 2003.
Mr. Aziz was born in northern Iraq, near the city of Mosul, on April 28, 1936, to a Chaldean Christian family. (He was later the sole Christian to serve as a senior cabinet member under Mr. Hussein.) His name in Syriac, which is still used among Chaldean Christians, was Mikhail Yuhanna (Michael John). Information on his survivors was not immediately available.
He joined the Baath Party after studying English at Baghdad University, changing his name so that it would sound more Arabic. He became the editor of two newspapers, including Al Thawra, the official Baath Party paper.
Rising through the party ranks, Mr. Aziz eventually became a member of the Revolutionary Command Council, deputy prime minister and foreign minister. In a government known for distrust and betrayals as well as sudden falls from grace, Mr. Aziz was a survivor, who won and held Mr. Hussein’s trust for longer than almost any other close aide.
In his 2010 interview with The Guardian, he indicated that he had remained a believer in the idea that Iraq needed a dictator.
“There is nothing here anymore — nothing,” he said. “For 30 years Saddam built Iraq, and now it is destroyed.”
Omar Al-Jawoshy contributed reporting.
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(via NY Times)