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 aninterview 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.”
Tariq Aziz (Arabic: طارق عزيز Ṭāriq ʿAzīz, born Mikhail Yuhanna, Syriac: ܡܝܟܐܝܠ ܝܘܚܢܢ Mīḵāil Yōḥānon, Arabic: ميخائيل يوحنا Mīḫāʾīl Yūḥannā, baptized Manuel Christo; 28 April 1936 – 5 June 2015) was an Iraqi Foreign Minister (1983–1991) and Deputy Prime Minister (1979–2003) and a close advisor of President Saddam Hussein. Their association began in the 1950s when both were activistsfor the then-banned Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party. Although he was an Arab Nationalist he was in fact an ethnic Chaldean, and a member of the Chaldean Catholic Church.
Because of security concerns, Saddam rarely left Iraq, so Aziz would often represent Iraq at high-level diplomatic summits. What the United States wanted, he averred, was not "regime change" in Iraq but rather "region change". He said that the Bush Administration's reasons for war were "oil and Israel."
After surrendering to American forces on 24 April 2003, Aziz was held in prison, first by American forces and subsequently by the Iraqi government, in Camp Cropper in western Baghdad. He was acquitted of some charges on 1 March 2009 following a trial, but was sentenced to 15 years on 11 March 2009 for the executions of 42 merchants found guilty of profiteering in 1992 and another 7 years for relocating Kurds.
On 26 October 2010, he was sentenced to death by the Iraqi High Tribunal, which sparked regional and international condemnation from Iraqi bishops and other Iraqis, the Vatican, the United Nations, the European Union and the human rights organization Amnesty International, as well as various governments around the world, such as Russia. On 28 October 2010, it was reported that Tariq Aziz, as well as 25 fellow prison inmates, had begun a hunger strike to protest the fact that they could not receive their once-monthly visit from friends and relatives, which was normally set for the last Friday of each month.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani declared that he would not sign Aziz's execution order, thus commuting his sentence to indefinite imprisonment. He remained in custody the rest of his life, and died of a heart attack in the city of Nasiriyah on 5 June 2015 aged 79.
Early life and education
Mikhail Yuhanna (English: Michael John) was born on 28 April 1936 in the Chaldean Christian town of Tel Keppe in northern Iraq, to an ethnic Chaldean family, members of the Chaldean Catholicchurch. Yuhanna studied English at Baghdad University, and later worked as a journalist, before joining the Ba'ath Party in 1957. He changed his distinctly Christian name to the more Arabic sounding Tariq Aziz to gain acceptance among the Arab and Muslim majority. In 1963, he was editor of the newspaper Aj-Jamahir (al-Jamaheer) and al Thawra, the newspaper of the Ba'ath party.
He began to rise through the ranks of Iraqi politics after the Ba'ath party came to power in 1968. Aziz became close to Saddam who heavily promoted him. He served as a member of the Regional Command, the Ba'ath Party's highest governing organization from 1974 to 1977, and in 1977 became a member of Hussein's Revolutionary Command Council.
In 1979, Aziz became Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq, and worked as a diplomat to explain Iraq's policies to the world. In April 1980 he survived an Iranian-backed assassination attempt carried out by members of the Islamic Dawa Party. In the attack, members of Islamic Dawa Party threw a grenade at Aziz in central Baghdad. The attack killed several people. It was among the casus belli of theIran–Iraq War.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Tariq Aziz served as the international spokesman in support of the military action. He claimed the invasion was justified because Kuwait's increased oil production was harming Iraqi oil revenues. He condemned Arab states for "subservience to the United States' hegemony in the Middle East and their support for punitive sanctions." On 9 January 1991, Aziz was involved in the Geneva Peace Conference which included the United States Secretary of State, James Baker. The goal of the meeting was to discuss a possible resolution to the occupation of Kuwait.
In October 2000, the then-junior Minister for Foreign Affairs from Britain, Peter Hain, set up a secret war avoidance team to carry messages back and forth between himself and Aziz. After initial cooperation, Aziz rebuffed the delegations.
On 14 February 2003, Aziz reportedly had an audience with Pope John Paul II and other officials in Vatican City, where, according to a Vatican statement, he communicated "the wish of the Iraqi government to co-operate with the international community, notably on disarmament". The same statement said that the Pope "insisted on the necessity for Iraq to faithfully respect and give concrete commitments to resolutions of the United Nations Security Council, which is the guarantor of international law".
Weapons of mass destruction
Main article: Iraq and weapons of mass destruction
Shortly after the invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush claimed Tariq Aziz as one of the Iraqi regime who was responsible for hiding Iraqi WMD:
He voluntarily surrendered to American forces on 24 April 2003, after negotiations had been mediated by his son. His chief concern at the time was for the welfare of his family. At the time of his surrender, Aziz was ranked number 43 out of 55 in the American list of most-wanted Iraqis despite a belief "he probably would not know answers to questions like where weapons of mass destruction may be hidden and where Saddam Hussein might be."
Before the war, Aziz claimed he would rather die than be a U.S. prisoner of war: "Do you expect me, after all my history as a militant and as one of the Iraqi leaders, to go to an American prison – to go toGuantanamo? I would rather die", he told Britain's ITV.
On 24 May 2006, Aziz testified in Baghdad as a defense witness for Ibrahim Barzan and Mukhabarat employees, claiming that they did not have any role in the 1982 Dujail crackdown. He stated that the arrests were in response to the assassination attempt on Saddam Hussein, which was carried out by the Shiite Dawa Party. "If the head of state comes under attack, the state is required by law to take action. If the suspects are caught with weapons, it's only natural they should be arrested and put on trial".
He further testified that the Dujail attack was "part of a series of attacks and assassination attempts by this group, including against me." He said that in 1980, Dawa Party insurgents threw a grenade at him as he visited a Baghdad university, killing civilians around him. "I'm a victim of a criminal act conducted by this party, which is in power right now. So put it on trial. Its leader was the prime minister and his deputy is the prime minister right now and they killed innocent Iraqis in 1980," he said. The Dawa Party is now a party in the Shiite coalition that dominates the Iraqi government. The party's leader, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, was prime minister until mid-May, when another leading Dawa Party figure, Nouri al-Maliki, was picked and he was able to form a new government before the end of May 2006.
In his closing remarks, he stated that "Saddam is my colleague and comrade for decades, and Barzan is my brother and my friend and he is not responsible for Dujail's events."
On 29 May 2005, the British newspaper The Observer published letters (in Arabic and English) from Aziz written in April and May 2005, while he was in American custody, addressed to "world public opinion" pleading for international help to end "his dire situation":
In August 2005, Aziz's family was allowed to visit him. At the time the location of Aziz's prison was undisclosed; his family was brought in a bus with blackened out windows.
For security reasons he was later moved to Camp Cropper, part of the huge US base surrounding Baghdad airport. His son said that while his father was in poor health, he was being well treated by prison officials. He could make 30 minutes of telephone calls monthly and had access to US Arabic-language radio and television stations. Every two months his family could send a parcel containing clothes, cigarettes, chocolate, coffee and magazines.
The spiritual leader of Iraq's Chaldean Catholic community, Emmanuel III Delly, called for Aziz's release in his 2007 Christmas message. Aziz was acquitted of crimes against humanity.
On 17 January 2010, Aziz suffered a stroke and was transferred from prison to hospital. On 5 August 2010, The Guardian released his first face-to-face interview since his surrender. On 22 September 2010, documents were released that he had given an interview about how he had told the FBI that the dictator Hussein was "delighted" in the 1998 terrorist bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa but had no interest in partnering with Osama bin Laden.
Aziz was set to appear before the Iraqi High Tribunal set up by the Iraq Interim Government, but not until April 2008 was he brought up on any charges. This changed when, on 29 April 2008, Aziz went on trial over the deaths of a group of 42 merchants who were executed by the Iraqi regime in 1992, after the merchants had been charged by the Iraqi regime with manipulating food prices when Iraq was under international sanctions.
The charges brought against Aziz were reported by The Independent to be "surprising" as the deaths of the 42 merchants had always previously been attributed to Saddam Hussein. Nevertheless, on 11 March 2009 the Iraqi High Tribunal ruled that Aziz was guilty of crimes against humanity, and he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. On 2 August 2009, Aziz was convicted by the Iraqi High Tribunal of helping to plan the forced displacement of Kurds from northeastern Iraq and sentenced to seven years in jail. After these judgments had been passed, the BBC News published an article stating that, "there was no evidence that a Western court would regard as compelling that he had anything like final responsibility for the carrying out of the executions" of the 42 merchants and "there was no real evidence of his personal involvement and guilt" with regards to the displacement of Kurds. That same year, he was acquitted in a separate trial which concerned the suppression of an uprising in Baghdad during the 1990s.
On 26 October 2010, the Iraqi High Tribunal handed down a death sentence against Aziz for the offense of "persecution of Islamic parties," amongst them the serving Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party, following a crackdown on a Shia uprising after the 1991 Gulf War. The Associated Press reports that "the judge gave no details of Aziz's specific role" in the crackdown. His lawyer stated that Tariq Aziz's role in the former Iraqi government was in the arena of "Iraq's diplomatic and political relations only, and had nothing to do with the executions and purges carried during Hussein's reign." His lawyer further stated that the death sentence itself was politically motivated and that timing of the death sentence may have been aimed at diverting international attention away from documents released by WikiLeaks, which detailed crimes in which Maliki government officials have been implicated. His lawyers have 30 days to lodge an appeal, following which the court would have another 30 days to look into the appeal; if the appeal is turned down the sentence would be carried out after another 30 days. On 26 October 2010 the Vatican urged the Iraqi government not to carry out his execution, and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton stated that Aziz's execution would be "unacceptable and the EU will seek to commute his sentence." That same day, the human rights organization Amnesty International issued a statement condemning the use of the death penalty in this case, as well as for the cases of two other former Iraqi officials; the statement also expressed concern regarding the manner in which trials may have been conducted by the Iraqi High Tribunal. On 27 October 2010, Greek President Karolos Papoulias and the Russian Foreign Ministry both released statements urging the Iraqi government not to carry out the death penalty against Tariq Aziz. Also on 27 October 2010, a spokesperson for United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon was reported to have "stressed that the UN is against the death sentence and in this case, as in all others, it is calling for the verdict to be cancelled." On 28 October 2010, it was reported that some Iraqi Bishops and many ordinary Iraqis also condemned the death penalty for Tariq Aziz. Furthermore, according to the Wall Street Journal, "several international human-rights groups have criticised the procedures and questioned the impartiality of the court."
According to AFP, his family stated that Aziz, along with 25 fellow inmates, had been on a hunger strike following the sentence to protest the denial of their once-monthly visits with family and friends, but an Iraqi court official has denied this.According to AFP, Aziz and the other prisoners were "still at the site of the court in Baghdad’s Green Zone and had not been transferred back to prison where they could have received their monthly visit."
On 17 November 2010, it was reported that Iraqi President Jalal Talabani had declared that he would not sign Aziz's execution order.
On 5 December 2011, Saad Yousif al-Muttalibi, an adviser to the Prime Minister, indicated that the execution of Aziz would "definitely take place" after the withdrawal of American forces.
In 2001, his son Ziad was arrested for corruption. In January 1999 Ziad was accused by his former mistress of using the official position of his father (mostly his cars) to facilitate smooth crossing of the Jordanian border with contraband, attempted murder of her husband and family, as well as for corruption involving French and Indonesian companies. He was arrested and sentenced to 22 years in prison. Aziz resigned from his post but Hussein did not accept his resignation.Ziad was eventually released from prison when Hussein decided that Aziz had paid enough for his mistakes.
Ziad Aziz now lives in Jordan with his wife, four children, and Tariq Aziz's two sisters. Tariq Aziz's wife and another son live in Yemen.
Tariq Aziz died on 5 June 2015 in al-Hussein hospital in the city of Nasiriyah, aged 79. According to his lawyer, he was being treated well in prison but suffered from ill health and simply wanted an end to his "misery". The incarcerated Aziz suffered from depression, diabetes, heart disease, and ulcers.