Minister charged with explaining Saddam’s Iraq to the world

Tariq Aziz: April 28th, 1936 - June 5th, 2015

The Iraqi politician Tariq Aziz, who has died aged 79, was one of the most instantly recognisable faces of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Since the 1980s, he had tried to explain and to justify Iraq’s policies to the international community – and had also tried to explain the world to Saddam. Neither task was easy.

When Saddam became president in the summer of 1979, Aziz’s appointment as deputy prime minister signalled his privileged position as one of his leader’s inner circle. He was one of the few members of that clique who did not come from the villages around Tikrit, and was also the only Christian in such a senior post. In the eyes of Saddam this was to his advantage, since, as a Christian, he had no social power base and could have no ambitions to hold power himself.

Aziz’s prominence was also acknowledged when the underground Shia opposition group the Islamic Task Organisation, tried to assassinate him in April 1980. The attempt unleashed a ferocious campaign of repression against the Shia community in Iraq and contributed to the deterioration of relations between Iraq and Iran that led to war that year.


Invasion of Iran

As Saddam’s closest adviser on foreign affairs, Aziz was partly responsible for the decision to invade Iran in September 1980, accurately gauging the international indifference towards, even encouragement of, such an act of aggression. Like many others, however, he hopelessly misjudged the Iranians’ likely response.

In 1983 he was appointed minister of foreign affairs. By this stage the tide of war had turned against Iraq. Saddam was anxious to enlist support from the west in particular, and the western powers, fearful of an Iranian victory, were only too eager to help. Aziz was an ideal intermediary who succeeded in re-establishing diplomatic links with the US and in cultivating a relationship of such warmth that, by 1987-88, US assistance had become a crucial part of the Iraqi war effort against Iran.

However, the crisis over Kuwait that followed the end of that war showed some of Aziz’s limitations. He seems to have believed that the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 would provoke regional and international reactions no more threatening than those of 1980, allowing Iraq to gain major advantages from what amounted to a hostage-taking strategy. Once it was clear how wrong this was, he reinforced Saddam’s view that western and regional powers were out to get Iraq whatever it did.

Born Mikhail Yuhanna in Tel Kaif, near Mosul, to a Chaldean Catholic family of small landowners, he had graduated from Baghdad’s College of Fine Arts in 1958. Like many of his generation, he was attracted by Arab nationalism, with its secular and anti-imperialist promise, gravitating towards the Baath party in the late 1950s and changing his name to Tariq Aziz (“noble path”).

It was thus not surprising that, after the collapse of the short-lived Baathist regime in 1963, he should have associated himself with the conservative, military Ba’athists, led by Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, who purged and took over the party in the 1960s.

It was during these years that Aziz became close to Saddam, al-Bakr’s tribal cousin. In the 1970s he publicly prepared the way for Saddam’s assumption of supreme power by helping to orchestrate the vilification of party members allegedly connected to a “communist plot” of 1978 and a “Syrian plot” of 1979. He was complicit in bloody purges that accompanied the unveiling of these alleged conspiracies.

Regime change

The determination of President

George Bush

to initiate “regime change” in Iraq in the early 2000s through war and the sidelining of the UN left Aziz little room for manoeuvre and eventually made his diplomatic skills redundant. Following the American-led invasion of Iraq, he gave himself up to US forces in late April 2003.

He was sentenced to a number of terms of imprisonment on a variety of specific charges. In October 2010 he was sentenced to death for "crimes against humanity". However, then president Jalal Talabani made it clear that he would not sign the death warrant.

Aziz is survived by his wife, Violet, two sons, Zaid and Saddam, and two daughters, Zainab and Maysa.