Profile: Tariq Aziz

As Iraqi foreign minister in the 1980s, he was often the face of the Baathist government.

Tariq Aziz, right, was often the public face of the government of Saddam Hussein, left [GALLO/GETTY] 

Tariq Aziz, the former foreign minister and deputy prime minister of Iraq, was for many years regarded by the West as the face of the former Baghdad government and the special representative of its former president, Saddam Hussein. 

In the Arab world, he was known as the architect of Iraq’s diplomatic initiatives during the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s and a staunch defender of his country’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Aziz enjoyed the trust of Iraq’s Baathist presidents Saddam and his predecessor Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr.

When the Baath party came to power in 1968, Aziz was appointed as chief-editor of Al-Thawra (The Revolution) newspaper, the party’s official mouthpiece. Two years later he became the minister of information.

Aziz also led the drive to increase media and cultural exchange with the rest of the world.

Western influences started to appear in Iraq’s arts, literature and media sectors; hard-line Baathists and Islamists, however, accused him of undermining the independence of Iraqi identity.       

Despite the criticism, Aziz continued to rise in the ranks and in 1977 he became a member of Iraq’s Revolutionary Council, the first Christian in Iraq’s highest legislative and ruling body.

In 1980, Aziz was the target of a bomb attack while visiting al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad. The Iran-based Dawaa Party (currently chaired by Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister) claimed responsibility at the time.

English education

Aziz was born as Mikhail Yuhanna (Michael John) to an Assyrian Christian family in the village of Tell Keif near Mosul in the northern Nineveh province in 1936.

His father was a waiter and died when he was a young boy. He moved to Baghdad with his mother where he lived and studied English literature.

In 1957, Aziz was working as a teacher of English language when he joined the Arab Baath Socialist Party and worked closely with Saddam Hussein in bringing the Arabist movement to power.

The party was banned for urging Iraqis to abolish the monarchy, which it believed was an extension of British occupation.

Following a pan-Arab nationalist coup in 1963, the Baath Party enjoyed a power-sharing mechanism with the Iraqi government. During that time Aziz worked in the state’s media sector and changed his name to Tariq Aziz.

In 1983, three years after the start of the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein appointed Aziz as minister of foreign affairs. Aziz, who had become an internationally-recognised face during his years as information minister, used his wide international contacts to win support for Iraq during its war with Iran.

Aziz’s first major diplomatic achievement was the restoration of ties with the US, which had been severed after the 1967 Six-Day War with Israel.

In 1984, Iraq and the US restored diplomatic relations after a meeting at the White House between Aziz and Ronald Reagan, the then US president. 
In 1988, Iran accepted UN resolution 598 which called on both sides to halt hostilities and enter negotiations for a lasting cease-fire.


Aziz denied a role in ordering the execution of 42 merchants in 1992 [AFP]

Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990.

As the US continued efforts to garner international support for a UN resolution authorising the use of force to drive the Iraqi army out of Kuwait, Aziz appeared on many media outlets defending Baghdad’s position.

On January 9, Aziz met with James Baker, the then US secretary of state, in Geneva in a last-minute effort to avoid war.

However, the meeting ended in failure and a US-led coalition began bombing Baghdad on January 17, 1991.

In March, Iraq and the US agreed to a cease-fire. In the years following the Gulf War, Iraq struggled to rebuild its nearly-destroyed infrastructure under UN sanctions. The US maintained that Iraq had continued to work on manufacturing chemical weapons and weaponising its nuclear programme.

With his command of the English language, Aziz often appeared on international media stressing that Iraq was WMD-free and was not a threat to its neighbours. 

Under occupation

His last mission outside Iraq was in February 2003 weeks before the US-led invasion.

He travelled to the Vatican, met Pope John Paul II and handed him a letter from Saddam Hussein in which he expressed Iraq’s willingness to co-operate with UN weapons inspectors and urging the pope to help prevent another war. 

After US forces entered Baghdad in April 2003, Aziz was number 43 on the list of the 55 most wanted Iraqi senior officials. He turned himself in to US forces on April 25 and has been in their custody ever since.

He was brought to trial on April 29, 2008 and accused of signing an order for the execution of 42 merchants who allegedly manipulated food prices in July 1992 at the height of the country’s economic downturn under UN sanctions. He had denied the charges.

On March 11, 2009 an Iraqi court found him guilty of the July 1992 executions and handed him a 15-year sentence.

Prosecutors had also hoped that Aziz would testify against Saddam, but the former foreign minister refused to condemn his one-time boss and continued to refer to him as “the president”.

Aziz’s family say his health has deteriorated considerably since he suffered a stroke prior to the US invasion. Senior members of Iraq’s Assyrian Church have called on US forces to release him.

In October 2010, Iraq’s high tribunal passed a death sentence on Aziz for his involvement in the persecution of Shia Muslim parties in the 1980s.

His lawyer said he would appeal against the sentence.

Source : Al Jazeera

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