Smooth-tongued apologist for Saddam

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He Looks like a slightly ill-tempered teddy-bear, his dark eyes contrasting with his white hair. Once again this week Tariq Aziz, the deputy prime minister of Iraq, was explaining in perfect English the actions of Saddam Hussein to television viewers across the world, just as he did during the crisis leading up to the Gulf War five years ago.

It is a role with which he is familiar. Born 60 years ago in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, he became editor of the Iraqi Baath party newspaper at the age of 27. When the party seized power he flourished as a propagandist, becoming Minister of Information. By 1980 he even merited an assassination attempt by Islamic militants.

Could Mr Aziz be the moderate of Saddam's Iraq? "There is no such being," said a Russian diplomat in Baghdad, with long experience of dealing with the regime. "In discussions so-called liberals like Tariq Aziz were always 10 per cent tougher than Saddam himself. Whatever they really thought, it was the only safe thing for them to do." And in private his style is more brutal than in interviews with the foreign press. Negotiating with Jalal Talabani, the leader of one of the Kurdish factions, in 1983, he said: "If you help us we will never forget it. If you oppose us we will never forget it. And after the [Iran-Iraq] war is over we will destroy you and all your villages completely."

How has he managed to survive, when so many of Saddam's closest associates have gone to the firing squad? His efficiency - compared with some other Iraqi leaders - has helped. He was born a Chaldean Christian, which means he could never aspire to supreme power in Muslim Iraq, and was therefore no threat to Saddam. He was always loyal, and is believed by many Iraqis to have been personally involved by Saddam in the killing of opponents.

Even the most skilled propagandist could not explain away the excesses of the regime, but Tariq Aziz is a skilled negotiator. During the Iran- Iraq war, the Gulf crisis and sanctions against Iraq, he has shown that he can play a difficult hand well. That might be said to give him influence, but at the beginning and end of the day in Iraq, it is Saddam Hussein himself who decides everything.