Tariq Aziz: villain or victim?

The decision to deliver a death sentence to Tariq Aziz has caused a stir in the international community.

The decision passed down by Iraq’s high tribunal to sentence Tariq Aziz, former foreign minister to death, has caused a stir in the international community. However, it is unlikely many, if any, will speak out against the decision [EPA]

So what really lies behind the decision by Iraq’s high tribunal to pass a death sentence on Tariq Aziz, long serving Iraqi foreign minister and number two to Saddam Hussein? The decision has caused shock waves around the World, largely because the sentence has the feel of vengeance to it. The Iraqi High Tribunal took what must be a highly unusual step in effectively rescinding the earlier judgments against him. For Tariq Aziz’s twenty seven year sentence has effectively been reduced to a matter of months by his death sentence. Aziz has now been found guilty of “the persecution of Islamic parties”, whose leaders were assassinated, imprisoned or forced into exile.

One of Saddam’s main targets was – according to the high tribunal – the Islamic Dawa party of current Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite Muslim. Presumably there was enough proof to show that Tariq Aziz was involved with this persecution as well, and if so we can be fairly certain that retribution has indeed played a part in his death sentence. How ironic then that many Western Governments seemed so content for Saddam’s regime to contain Islamic parties at the time. But don’t hold your breath; it seems fairly unlikely that there will be calls for clemency from Washington and London.

Tariq Aziz is of course a Chaldean Christian, who along with the Assyrian Christians, have suffered terribly since the War, with more than half of their number now living in exile. Being the only Christian in a secular Ba’athist dictatorship was a factor apparently exploited by Saddam, with veiled threats being made periodically to Aziz’s family. I remember being in Iraq and hearing that Aziz feared Saddam, and that he was only too aware of the fragility of his family’s safety.  Which is not to excuse Aziz for “following orders”, but it may go some way to explain why Aziz stayed in Baghdad even when it was obvious to him, if not Saddam, that America and Britain were deadly serious about invading. It was even rumoured at the time that Aziz was playing a double game towards the end – certainly that was my view when he was first incarcerated when the war ended. I fully expected him to be released in five years and retire to a bungalow in Beirut.

I reported from inside Iraq on two occasions just before the war began. I remember seeing Aziz in the foyer of the Al Rasheed hotel in Baghdad, playing court to the Nationalist Russian leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the late Austrian far right leader, Jorg Haider.  Eventually my requests to interview him paid off. I was taken to the Foreign Ministry in a blacked out limousine, into an underground car park, and up in an elevator to the echoing corridors. Aziz was sitting alone in a large armchair, Iraqi flags to his left and right puffing on an extra large cigar. He told me that “I have met your Mr Heath and Mrs Thatcher, but not your Mr Blair”.

“Please tell Mr Blair that we have no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq”, said Aziz. “Please tell him that he is welcome to come here, or send anyone who wishes to see for themselves”. I wasn’t sure just how serious Aziz was with his offer, particularly since  each attempt over the preceding week to be allowed to visit some of the sites identified by Western intelligence as containing WMD were turned down with ever more ludicrous excuses.  But having interviewed the former head of the UNSCOM weapons inspections team, Scott Ritter at some length, I was pretty sure that Aziz was telling the truth about WMD when he said Iraq didn’t have any. At the time I was also an elected member of the UK Labour Party’s ruling National Executive, so I did pass the message on to Tony Blair, who looked at me quizzically. He later joked to junior Foreign Minister, Chris Mullin that “the Iraqis must be getting desperate if they are talking to Mark Seddon”.

Some months after the war ended, I began wondering what had happened to Tariq Aziz. After all he had handed himself over to the Americans when they arrived in Baghdad. I finally managed to track his wife and two sons down to a hotel in Amman, Jordan, where they were being looked after by Chaldean Christians. Mrs Aziz was distraught, as she had learned that her husband had suffered a heart attack in custody. She had finally managed to trace Tariq Aziz to a prison holding camp near Baghdad airport, and had but a very short note scrawled by her husband saying “Don’t worry, I am ok”, which had been delivered to her by the Red Cross. One of Aziz’s sons was already contemplating moving to America to qualify as a dentist, although I recall advising him at the time that he might need to change his name before he could get a visa, as ‘Saddam Aziz’ was unlikely to go down well with US Homeland Security.

Tariq Aziz is 74, and in poor health. He has been for a long time. Given his sentence, it seems unlikely that he will ever leave custody, except in a wooden box. But vengeance is clearly a powerful motivating force. Nor should he expect much help from many of those Western politicians who used to pay homage to him back in the 1980s, when Iraq was an invaluable ally against the Ayatollah’s Iran. I even remember seeing pictures of Donald Rumsfeld watching Iraqi rockets being fired on the Fawr Peninsula – rockets he had been very keen to sell them. Perhaps Aziz, who could tell the whole story of Western involvement in Iraq, before, during and after the war, is simply too embarrassing and potentially compromising a figure to be allowed to live out his days in prison.

Mark Seddon is a writer and broadcaster. He is the former United Nations correspondent for Al Jazeera English. He currently writes for among others, The Guardian, The Independent, Daily Mail, Spectator, New Statesman, and Private Eye. He is a former editor of Tribune.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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