Tariq Aziz: From Saddam's envoy to a condemned man

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Former Iraqi regime's chief apologist sentenced to death

An Iraqi court yesterday passed a death sentence on Tariq Aziz, who for years roamed the corridors of the United Nations and the capitals of Europe trying to apply a gloss of reason to the policies of Saddam Hussein until the collapse of his regime after the 2003 American-led invasion.

Already serving long sentences deriving from earlier convictions, Aziz sat head bowed in the Baghdad courtroom yesterday clutching at a barrier before him as the sentence of death by hanging was read. He was found guilty of persecuting members of Shia Muslim religious parties that were marginalised during Saddam's rule.

The Aziz in court – 74 years old and worn by years of illness, including strokes in prison – was a long way from the one-time denizen of global diplomacy, known for his heavy spectacles, thick moustache and penchant for the occasional cigar and tumbler of whisky.

The only Christian in the top echelons of the Saddam regime, Aziz had a cosmopolitan air that made him seem more accessible to foreign diplomats as they battled to avert the war that finally came.

But Aziz knew that his loyalty to his master was also his protection. He was unrelenting in his assaults on the US and in justifying the attempted seizure of Kuwait. Thus Western officials understood that Aziz, however suave, was no more to be trusted than Hussein himself or anyone else in his inner circle.

His Jordanian-based lawyer, Badee Izzat Aref, was coy about whether an appeal would be filed. "We are discussing this issue and what next step we should take," he said in Amman. If an appeal is filed and the Appeals Court upholds the sentence, Aziz would theoretically face execution within 30 days.

One of those who featured in America's playing-card deck of most-wanted Iraqis, Aziz, who served both as Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in Saddam's Ba'athist government, surrendered in his home city of Mosul shortly after the invasion. It was said that he later offered to testify against Saddam, who was himself hanged in 2006, in exchange for lenient treatment. The offer was rejected, however.

His earlier convictions stemmed from his part in the murder of dozens of merchants in 1992, and the forced displacement of Kurds in northern Iraq. He now faces the rope for persecution of members of the Islamic Dawa Party, which is the political home of the current Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki.

"This sentence is not fair and it is politically motivated," Mr Aref insisted last night. The lawyer also questioned the timing of the sentence, saying it was an attempt to divert attention from revelations of prisoner abuse by Iraqi and US security personnel contained within the latest WikiLeaks documents.

His son Ziad Aziz similarly cried foul, noting that the former minister was a victim because of threats that had been made against him by Dawa Party members 20 years ago.

"This is an illogical and an unfair sentence that is serving political goals of the Iraqi government," Ziad Aziz said yesterday. "Tariq Aziz himself was the victim of the religious parties that tried to kill him in 1980, but now he is turned into a criminal."

The Vatican has urged Iraq to not carry out the death sentence. Father Federico Lombardi, the spokesman, said commuting the sentence would encourage reconciliation and the rebuilding of peace and justice in Iraq.

While Aziz was influential abroad, he was always held at arm's length from the domestic decisions of the regime. The brutality of that era is associated more with Saddam himself and lieutenants such as Ali Hassan al-Majid, or Chemical Ali, who was executed earlier this year for the gassing of 5,000 Kurds. The reference by his son to his father almost being killed stems from a 1980 grenade attack at Baghdad's Mustansiriyah University that killed several people and was blamed on the Dawa Party. The intended target of the attack was Aziz.

The association between Aziz and Saddam went as far back as the 1950s. In the early 1960s, Aziz was consolidating his position in Ba'ath circles, running the party's propaganda apparatus and editing its newspaper.

In 2003, Aziz embarked on an emergency tour of European capitals trying to divide governments there against the US and Britain, which were leading the march towards war. For years before, he had worn his enmity towards London and Washington on his sleeve, openly denouncing the former prime minster Tony Blair and the former president Bill Clinton as war criminals.

Iraq's most wanted

Ali Hassan al-Majid

One of Saddam Hussein's closest confidants and fifth in the US government's most-wanted list, Majid was responsible for gassing many thousands of Kurds in the 1980s, leading to the nickname "Chemical Ali". He was widely regarded as the cruellest of Saddam Hussein's henchmen. He was sentenced to death in 2007 for genocide, and hanged in January this year.

Qusay and Uday Hussein

Saddam's sons were both seen as potential heirs to his position in Iraq. Despite being the younger, Qusay was considered the most likely. His older brother Uday, famed for his erratic behaviour, lost the opportunity after feuding with his father and murdering Saddam's favourite valet and food taster. The sons – second and third on the most-wanted list – were killed together in 2003, during a gun battle with US troops in Mosul, in northern Iraq.

Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri

Under Saddam, Douri was a military commander and vice president of the Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council. When Saddam was captured, Douri became the US's most-wanted man in Iraq. After Saddam's execution, the Ba'ath Party confirmed Douri as its leader. His whereabouts are unknown and he has a $10m (£6.3m) bounty on his head. In an audio tape released this year, he said he was fighting to liberate Iraq.

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