A divisive legacy: Tariq Aziz (1936-2015)

Whether seen as victim or villain, Tariq Aziz was a witness and actor to the defining points in Iraq’s modern history.

US President Ronald Reagan talking with Tariq Aziz (1984) [AP]
US President Ronald Reagan with Tariq Aziz in 1984 [AP]

This recent death of Tariq Aziz, a high-ranking member in Saddam Hussein’s government and the foreign minister during the 1991 Gulf War, marks the end of one of the last surviving members of the Baath party’s old guard.

In his lifetime, he played a major role as foreign minister of Iraq, re-establishing ties with the United States in the 1980s, to only be arrested by the US close to 20 years later, making it to number 43 on the notorious 55 most-wanted deck of cards issued to US soldiers during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Tariq Aziz was born as Mikhail Yuhanna in 1936 to a Chaldean Christian family, but most probably assumed a generic, non-denominational name as to hide his religious background in a majority Muslim country. He studied English literature at the University of Baghdad, giving him the language skills that would later suit him well, representing Iraq as its foreign minister.

Former Iraqi deputy PM Tariq Aziz dies in prison

He joined the Baath Party in 1957, just a year before the fall of Iraq’s monarchy to a military coup that would evolve into a revolution, transforming Iraq into a republic. The Baath Party in its early phases was led by an Iraqi Shia, and as a party that stressed secularism and Arab unity over parochial and primordial ethno-sectarian ties, it appealed to Iraqis outside the dominant Arab Sunni political establishment.

Assassination attempt

After surviving as an underground political movement, the Baath Party came to power in 1968, due to a military coup launched by party member Hasan al-Bakr, a respected military commander, who became president, bringing in his young cousin Saddam Hussein as vice president.

Aziz, who had been a former school teacher and journalist, and then editor of the party’s newspaper, Al-Thawra, was appointed to Iraq’s highest executive body, the Revolutionary Command Council in 1977, and two years later was promoted to deputy minister of Iraq, the same year Saddam Hussein assumed the presidency.

Having read thousands of captured Iraqi state documents for my doctoral thesis, his signature never appeared on any execution orders or military orders against the Kurds, the Kuwaitis, Iranians, or fellow Iraqis.


It was an allegedly Iranian-sponsored assassination attempt on Aziz’s life in April 1980, conducted by members of Iraq’s underground Shia parties, that served as one of the primary reasons for Iraq’s invasion of the Islamic republic a few months later.

During the ensuing eight-year war, Aziz was also given the portfolio of foreign minister, restoring Iraqi-US relations, and even visiting the White House and meeting with Ronald Reagan in November 1984.

The detente with the US ended after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, and Aziz became the public face of the state that posed the first challenge to the US’ post-Cold War order.

He met face-to-face with US Secretary of State James Baker in Geneva on January 9, in the final diplomatic attempt to avert an impending war.

Weapons of Mass Destruction

It was during this meeting that Baker handed Aziz a letter from George H. Bush to Saddam Hussein, which after reading, he handed back to Baker, stating that Bush’s language was not fit to be read by the president of Iraq.

It was also during this meeting that Baker communicated a veiled warning from the US that if Iraq used weapons of mass destruction during the war, Washington would respond with invading Baghdad itself and overthrowing Saddam Hussein.

Aziz had little leeway to negotiate Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait during this meeting, but it is likely he brought this message back to the Iraqi president, perhaps one of the actors who prevented WMDs from being introduced by the conflicting parties during the 1991 Gulf War. 

Aziz’s post as foreign minister ended after the 1991 Gulf War, although it is uncertain if this was because of Saddam perceiving he had failed in this position. He retained his post as deputy prime minister until the invasion of Iraq in 2003. 

Tariq Aziz greets Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, Iraq in 1998 [AP]
Tariq Aziz greets Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, Iraq in 1998 [AP]

Aziz had a relatively long political career in Saddam’s Iraq. As a former English teacher, he did not pose a threat to the regime that career officers did, who had the potential to launch a coup, and thus were purged or executed throughout the Baathist rule.

Furthermore, Saddam had no reason to see him as an adversary, since as a Christian, Aziz had no hopes of eventually becoming president and rule over a majority-Muslim nation.

Aziz surrendered to US forces after the invasion and was later transferred to the custody of the new Iraqi government. In 2010, Iraq’s Supreme Court sentenced him to death, implicating him on charges of the execution of Iraqi merchants convicted of price gouging, and in suppressing Iraq’s Shia parties and Kurds. It was while awaiting this eventual fate in prison in the southern city of Nasiriyah that he succumbed to a heart attack.

The scope of his guilt

Having avoided execution, the question most likely to be asked after his death is the scope of his guilt in crimes perpetuated under the Baathists. Having read thousands of captured Iraqi state documents for my doctoral thesis, his signature never appeared on any execution orders or military orders against the Kurds, the Kuwaitis, Iranians, or fellow Iraqis. However, I have read a large sample of those documents, but not every single one.

Tariq Aziz is interviewed by Larry King on Larry King Live in New York (1997) [AP]
Tariq Aziz is interviewed by Larry King on Larry King Live in New York (1997) [AP]

On one hand, he was complicit by being a member of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), the body that signed off on egregious human rights abuses to sanction collective and indiscriminate punishment meted out during the Anfal campaign against the Kurds or the occupation of Kuwait.

Collectively, he was complicit in being a member of the RCC, yet at the same time the RCC was essentially a deliberative body that at the end of each meeting would rubber stamp Saddam’s individual decisions.

In terms of direct causation between policy and action, it was individuals like Ali Hassan al-Majid (aka Chemical Ali) that had a direct responsibility for implementing crimes during Anfal or the invasion of Kuwait. 

The death of Aziz represents the former leadership of the Baath Party coming to an end within the span of just two months. His passing follows the relatively recent death in April of Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, one of the most high-profile Baathists who was never apprehended and continued to lead the insurgency.

Nevertheless, despite the death of the old guard, the Baath’s presence is still felt in Iraq through its apparent command of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

From his humble beginning as an Iraqi Christian student of English at the University of Baghdad, Tariq Aziz reached the height of power as a member of Iraq’s Revolutionary Command Council and as foreign minister. From this peak, he became a mere image on a card, the eight of spades, and surrendered himself to US forces, ultimately succumbing to a heart attack while in custody.

While his legacy has been divisive, and regardless if one sees him as either a victim or villain, he rose from obscure origins to the inner circle of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and was a witness and actor in the defining points in the modern history of Iraq.

Ibrahim al-Marashi is an assistant professor at the Department of History, California State University, San Marcos. He is the co-author of “Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History.”

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