American forces have netted a former Iraqi top spy hours after Tareq Aziz, Iraq’s deputy prime minister and the country’s most public face for years, surrendered.
A US official said on Friday that Farouk Hijazi was detained near Iraq’s border with Syria.
Hijazi was director of external operations for the Iraqi intelligence agency in the mid-1990s, when it allegedly attempted to assassinate former president George Bush, father of the current US leader, during a visit to Kuwait.
The urbane, silver-haired Aziz, number 43 on a US list of 55 most-wanted Iraqis, gave himself up in Baghdad on Thursday night.
Tareq Aziz held talks with
“He did surrender. He is currently being questioned by coalition forces,” a US military spokesman said in Qatar.
At Baghdad’s Abi Hanifah Nouman mosque, Sheikh Moayyad Ibrahim al-Aadhami told worshippers after Friday prayers, “Let’s say no to America, no to the occupation. We won’t replace one tyrant with another.”
Anger has risen among Iraqis due to shortages of food, water and power, and rampant looting in the days after US forces entered Baghdad.
At one institute for abandoned children, looters may have carried off several children as well as furniture, books and electrical equipment, said a spokesman for UNICEF, the UN Children’s Fund, in Baghdad.
The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR said it was planning to help up to half a million expatriate Iraqis who might want to return home – but only when stability had been established.
Biggest fish so far
Aziz, 67, last appeared in public on March 19, the eve of the war, to scotch rumours he had been shot or had defected.
CNN quoted his sister as saying he had recently suffered two heart attacks. She said he held discussions with the Americans through an intermediary for several days, seeking assurances he would be treated in a “dignified” way and receive medical care.
She said US army medics were on hand when he surrendered on Thursday evening.
The cigar-smoking Aziz, who is fluent in English, played a starring diplomatic role as foreign minister in the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War.
Aziz’s sister said he had suffered two
He was also the defiant international voice of Iraq in the months before the March 20 invasion that overthrew Hussein.
Members of Aziz’s extended family in Baghdad said he was a good man who had the best interests of his country at heart.
“He was more than a good man. All the people know him as a gentle man, a diplomatic man,” said Mudhafar al-Wakil, the father-in-law of Aziz’s daughter.
Ordinary people in Baghdad welcomed his surrender. For them, Aziz is the biggest fish netted to date, even if the Americans are holding less well-known figures much higher on the wanted list.
Nabeel Musawi, top aide to long-exiled opposition politician Ahmad Chalabi, told CNN: “It will help lay fears to rest and will help the Iraqi people to…feel they are secure in a new environment and no reversal of policy…would lead to the return of the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein and his people.”
Street vendor Mohammad Hareth said: “I heard the good news this morning. This is another proof that Saddam is finished.”
“If Aziz surrenders to the Americans, who is still with Saddam? He is on his own with a handful of people, among them his two sons,” Hareth added.
Aziz, who had vowed on the eve of the war to die in a long and bloody battle with the United States, was the 12th of the 55 individuals on the US wanted list to be taken into custody, defence officials said. Three others are believed dead.
The US administrator in Iraq said on Thursday the formation of a new Iraqi government would start next week.
NBC television’s Tom Brokaw asked US President George W. Bush if it might be as long as two years before democracy comes to Iraq. “It could… or less. Who knows?” he replied.
As part of the process of replacing Saddam’s government, a number of Iraqi political groupings are to meet US officials in Baghdad on Monday, following an initial meeting near the southern city of Nassiriya last week.
Saddam and his two sons, Uday and Qusay, are missing and no weapons of mass destruction – the stated reason the United States and Britain launched the war on March 20 – have been found.
Where are the Winds?
Visiting Ohio on Thursday, Bush claimed Iraq had destroyed or moved alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
“It’s going to take time to find them,” Bush said, adding, “but we know he had them, and whether he destroyed them, moved them or hid them, we’re going to find out the truth.”
Aziz was knowledgeable about Saddam’s policies, one US official said. “He may not know precisely where the WMD is hidden, but he probably knows generally about their WMD programme.”
The UN Security Council, which on Thursday extended until June 3 emergency arrangements for Iraq’s oil-for-food plan, faces US demands that UN sanctions be lifted entirely.
The UN-administered programme uses Iraqi oil revenues to buy emergency food and medicine.
Bush has said several times he wants the sanctions, imposed in 1990, scrapped. Diplomats said Washington was crafting a resolution that would guarantee proceeds from future oil sales are held in trust for an interim Iraqi authority.
The consequences of any resolution would be to free oil sales and give the United States firm control over contracts and expenditures until an Iraqi government is in place, they said.
Without Security Council endorsement, no oil firm will sign a contract with an entity that has no legal standing.