Tariq Aziz, Iraq’s deputy prime minister from 1979 until his surrender to American Forces in April 2003 after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, died on Friday in an Iraqi prison from an apparent heart attack. He was 79.
Until the American invasion, he was second only to Saddam within the Ba’athist Revolutionary Command Council and, as foreign minister, the regime’s representative in its dealings with the outside world.
Aziz was, to the Western world, the best-known of Saddam’s close associates, but despite his prominence, he was only 43rd on the United States’ list of the most wanted after the invasion of Iraq—the eight of spades in the celebrated deck of cards. Although he was convicted in 2009, by an Iraqi court, for the murder of 42 merchants executed by Saddam’s regime, and for his role in the displacement of Kurds in the north-east of the country, the evidence against him was regarded by many as flimsy. The following year, he was condemned to death for his role in the persecution of Shi’ite rebels after the 1991 Gulf War—though, again, there seemed to be little evidence that he had been directly involved.
Aziz’s main role, in the view of many, was confined to the international arena; notably in the Geneva Peace Conference of 1991, in which he and the then Secretary of State James Baker attempted to negotiate a resolution to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Given how things turned out, he can hardly be seen as an unalloyed success, though the survival of the Ba’athist regime for a further dozen years may have owed something to his pragmatic approach.
“We don’t have an ideology that would tell us, like the Marxist-Leninist ideology, that America is the enemy,” he said in an interview with PBS in the late 1990s. “America could be an enemy and could be a friend, and could be neutral.”
Aziz often appeared a fluent and plausible figure, and with his heavy black-rimmed glasses, moustache and a cigar frequently clamped between his teeth, he was sometimes compared to Groucho Marx. He had excellent English, but was also unusual among members of the Iraqi government since, although an Arab nationalist, he was a member of the country’s Chaldean Christian minority.
He was born Mikhail Yuhanna on April 28, 1936, at Tel Keppe, eight miles from Mosul in the province of Ninevah, the historic home of the Iraqi Christian community until their recent expulsion by the forces of the so-called Islamic State. His father was a waiter.
He studied English at the University of Baghdad, and began his career as an English teacher before becoming a journalist. As a young man, he sympathised with the anti-colonial views of most of his contemporaries, and was highly critical of British influence in the country and its support of the government. He joined the Arab Socialist Party, the precursor to the Ba’ath Party—changing his name to reflect his allegiance—and by the early 1960s was editor of the party’s official newspaper. Though the Socialists briefly came to power in 1963, there was a coup while Aziz was visiting Syria, and he found himself in a Syrian prison for almost a year.
After his return to Iraq, the Ba’ath party came to power in 1967, and he was appointed minister of information. During the 1970s, he became a trusted ally of Saddam, then the Vice-President, and rose within the party, joining the Revolutionary command in 1977. Besides maintaining their own grip on power and instituting a purge of Shia politicians, whom Saddam, a member of the Sunni minority, regarded as a threat, the regime’s chief ambitions at the time centred on development. Oil fields were nationalized, a programme of industrialization implemented, and Aziz sought to develop international relations.
By his own account, though Iraq had always had close links with the Soviet Union, he was reluctant to be drawn further into the Soviet sphere of influence, and so looked towards Europe, and in particular France. He later maintained that, although there was no specific policy against the United States, Iraqis viewed the country’s support for Israel with suspicion, while the nationalization of oil had also made relations with Britain and the Netherlands prickly. Aziz also stated that Saddam had asked him to make approaches to the United States to improve relations after the non-aligned countries summit in 1979, but that the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War derailed the idea.
One of the proximate causes of the war was, in fact, a direct attack on Aziz in April 1980, when Iranian-backed Islamic militants lobbed a grenade at him in the centre of Baghdad. Though Aziz was uninjured, several people died. The eight-year war began that September.
Three years into the war, Aziz added the role of foreign minister to his post as deputy prime minister, and at once began trying to persuade Western leaders that Iraq was a vital bulwark against the Islamist ayatollahs of Iran. Despite Henry Kissinger’s view of the conflict—“It’s a pity they can’t both lose”—Aziz initially enjoyed some success in this task, winning round, amongst others, Donald Rumsfeld to his view.
But only two years after the end of the war with Iran, Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990 (and brokered a deal to keep Iran neutral). The rest of the international community was lined up against Saddam, however, despite Aziz’s attempts to persuade the U.N. that Kuwait was historically part of Iraq and—using a favourite tactic which he would continue to employ—trying to drag the Palestinian question into negotiations.
Between Iraq’s defeat in Kuwait and the 2003 American invasion, Aziz’s principle task was to attempt to persuade the international community, and in particular UNSCOM, that his country had disposed of the biological and chemical weapons programme which it had built up and that sanctions should be lifted. In 1992, he told the U.N. Security Council that all weapons had been destroyed. Rather undermining that statement, he said the same thing in 1995.
Although—like most of Saddam’s administration—Aziz was usually clad in military fatigues and a beret, in fact he had little involvement with military decisions himself, but was merely deputed to attempt to justify them to the rest of the world. This he usually did by blaming the West’s obsession with oil and Israel.
At the beginning of the 2003 war, he told British broadcasters that he “would rather die” than become an American prisoner of war. On April 24, 2003, he revised his opinion, and surrendered. American sources at the time voiced the opinion that he was unlikely to know much about the details of Saddam’s inner circle, or have any information about his whereabouts.
In 2005, Aziz wrote to the Observer newspaper to complain that he had had no contact with his family, and no prospect of receiving a trial. He was subsequently moved to Camp Cropper near Baghdad and eventually faced an Iraqi war crimes tribunal.
He was acquitted of crimes against humanity, but convicted of other offences. He received 15 years for his part in the execution of traders for market fixing and a further seven for the forced removal of the Kurds from Kirkuk. In October 2010, he was sentenced to death for persecution of the Islamic Dawa Party (the group which had launched the grenade attack, and was now the governing party). Several groups, including Amnesty International, the European Union and the Vatican protested the sentence, and in the end it was never carried out.
Aziz had been in poor health for some time, suffering from heart disease and diabetes. He is survived by his wife and a son, who now live in Yemen, and another son, now based in Jordan.