BAGHDAD: Iraq’s former deputy premier Tareq Aziz, who state television said was sentenced to death on Tuesday, exploited his mastery of English to put a gloss on Saddam Hussein’s murderous regime for two decades.
As Saddam’s principal spokesman, the bespectacled Aziz — the only Christian in the now executed dictator’s inner circle — was a recognizable figure internationally whose rise was attributed to unswerving loyalty to his master.
Iraq’s top court last year jailed both Aziz and Saddam henchman and cousin Ali Hassan Al-Majid for 15 years for their role in the 1992 execution of 42 Baghdad wholesalers.
Aziz had earlier been acquitted in the first of four trials for alleged crimes against humanity.
His family, now in Jordan, has repeatedly called for his release from custody, saying the 74-year-old was in poor health suffering from heart and respiratory problems, high blood pressure and diabetes.
In September, his Amman-based son Ziad said the Iraqi government wanted Aziz to die in Baghdad’s Kadhmiyah jail and had shown no compassion for his declining health.
Named foreign minister in 1983 and then deputy premier in 1991, Aziz was believed to have wielded little real power of decision-making.
But he became one of the regime’s best-known figures abroad as his master’s voice who matched his US peers in debate.
Born in the northern town of Sinjar on April 28, 1936, Aziz was from a Chaldean Catholic family.
He changed his name from Michael Yuhanna to Tareq Aziz to allay any Arab nationalist hostility to his Christian background.
Aziz had known Saddam since the 1950s, but was kept outside the closed Sunni Muslim circle of the president’s fellow clansmen from the central town of Tikrit even as he rose to become the top Christian in the Baathist government.
Once omnipresent, haranguing the international media and instantly recognizable in his trademark thick glasses and neat uniform, Aziz turned himself over to US custody a month after the March 2003 invasion.
Critics of the US-led occupation claimed Aziz was held as a political prisoner to avenge his often eloquent and erudite verbal assaults on Washington and London.
Very little has been heard of Aziz during his time in custody. His daughters Zinab and Saja have been allowed to visit him and said they found him in poor health.
He was reported to have suffered two heart attacks, with Aref saying the second was caused by a three-day hunger strike to protest against his detention.
The image of an ailing old man is very different to his previous existence defending seemingly lost Saddam causes.
Instructed to explain the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 — when Saddam’s use of Western civilians as "human shields" sparked outrage — or Baghdad’s repeated standoffs with UN weapons inspectors through the 1990s, the genial Aziz always found the words that made world headlines.
After British and US air strikes on Baghdad in 1998, he laid into the international community, the Arab world and the "criminals" — then British Prime Minister Tony Blair and US president Bill Clinton.
In early 2003, Aziz embarked on a high-profile tour of European capitals in a failed bid to prevent the US-led invasion.
His strong command of English, learned at university, not only ensured that the Anglophone media turned out to listen, but also gave him a platform to deliver fierce tongue-lashings guaranteed to make diplomats squirm.
With his defiant tone and ever-present Cuban cigar, Aziz gave the impression he would defend Saddam to the end.
Even after Saddam’s execution, Aziz took the stand in 2007 during the trial of three other leading regime members to insist that his longtime master was not guilty of crimes against humanity and had only been punishing would-be assassins.
He was referring to Saddam’s death sentence for ordering the deaths of 148 people following a 1982 assassination attempt against him.
Aziz was already in the command structure of the Baath party in 1963 in charge of propaganda, five years before the Baathists consolidated their grip on power.
He ran the party newspaper Ath-Thawra and then in the mid-1970s became information minister.
He survived an apparent assassination bid by grenade at Baghdad’s Mustansiriyah University in 1980 that killed several people and was blamed on the Shia Dawa party — today led by Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki.