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    Middle East
     Mar 4, 2009
Saddam's ex-front man saves his neck
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - Tarek Aziz, the former deputy prime minister of Iraq, was acquitted at the weekend, while his former comrade, Ali Hassan Majid, was sentenced to death by hanging - for the third time, by an Iraqi court.

The two were on trial for killing Iraqi Shi'ites exactly 10-years ago, in 1999. Majid, known in the West as "Chemical Ali" for using poisonous gas against Iraqi Kurds, had earlier been convicted of mass murder against both Kurds and Shi'ites.

He is now convicted of ordering mass executions against Shi'ites at Friday prayers, following the assassination of revered cleric Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, on February 10, 1999. The raid was

 

carried out under president Saddam Hussein's orders, in what is now known as Sadr City - a Shi'ite slum of Baghdad.

Majid, old and ailing, did not blink while the sentence was being read to him - probably seeing it coming after the hanging of his cousin and boss, Saddam, in December 2006. The ex-president's personal secretary Abed Hamid Mahmud, was also sentenced to life imprisonment on Sunday. Aziz, whose acquittal set off mixed emotions in the Arab world, was relieved, telling the judge, "Thank you!" He still faces another trial, however, accused of killing 42 merchants, who were accused with profiteering, in 1992.

Tarek Aziz, 73, whose real name is Mikhail Yuhanna, was born in 1936 and served as foreign minister of Iraq in 1983-1991, and as deputy premier until 2003. Saddam rarely traveled - certainly not to Europe - and Aziz was always given the task of representing him on foreign trips and Arab summits.

Although not a military officer, he often appeared in uniform, as was the case with many civilians in top posts under Saddam. Stories of his arrest - after he surrendered to American officials in April 2003 - and his maltreatment at Camp Cropper Prison in western Baghdad made world headlines.

In 2004, the London-based al-Hayat ran a letter he had sent to his family in which he begged for winter clothes because he was "feeling very cold in jail" and "couldn’t take it anymore". In 2005, The Observer published a letter written by Aziz to "world public opinion" saying: "We have been in prison for a long time and we have been cut from our families. No contacts, no phones, no letters. Even the parcels sent to us by our families are not given to us. We need a fair treatment, a fair investigation and finally a fair trial. Please help us."

A graduate of English from Baghdad University, Tarek Aziz worked as a journalist and joined the Ba'ath Party in 1957. He became editor of the daily al-Jamahir, and then the party's mouthpiece al-Thawra, after the party came to power in Syria and Iraq in the early 1960s.

Under the first Ba'athist president Ahmad Hasan Bakr, he joined the party's Regional Command in 1974, and in 1977 became a member of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC). A brilliant communicator, he was assigned with explaining his country's position during the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

In the 1980s, the religious party al-Da'wa (headed by current Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki) tried to assassinate Aziz by throwing a grenade while he visited Baghdad University during the Iran-Iraq War.

Shortly before the US-led invasion of 1991, he attended the Geneva Peace Conference and met with US secretary of state James Baker, trying to avert a military invasion for the liberation of Kuwait.

In February 2003, Aziz made world headlines again by visiting Pope John Paul II at the Vatican. His statement had been to "cooperate with the international community".

This was shortly before the George W Bush administration invaded Iraq to topple the Saddam regime. Rumors surfaced during the war, first that Aziz had sided with the US, then that he had been shot dead while trying to escape to Iraqi Kurdistan. He disproved the rumors by holding a press conference, saying that he was safe, and had not abandoned Saddam and would fight with the Iraqi president until the curtain fall.

He added that he would rather die than serve time in a US prison. His words were: "Do you expect me, after all my history as a militant and as one of the Iraqi leaders, to go to an American prison - to go to Guantanamo? I would rather die."

According to USA Today, Bush accused Aziz personally of "not telling the truth" in regard to Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction. When the US released its famous list of most-wanted Iraqi officials, Aziz was ranked 25th in the famous "pack of cards".
Defiant and loyal even while in chains, he defended Saddam when he appeared before court, saying: "If the head of state [Saddam] comes under attack, the state is required by law to take action. If the suspects are caught with weapons, it's only natural they should be arrested and put on trial."

Speaking about the 1980 assassination attempt on his life, he said, "I'm a victim of a criminal act conducted by this party [Da'wa], which is in power right now. So put it on trial. Its leader [Ibrahim Jaafari] was the prime minister and his deputy [Maliki] is the prime minister right now and they killed innocent Iraqis in 1980." He confidently added, "Saddam is my colleague and comrade for decades ... and he is not responsible for Dujail's events."

Since then, however, his prison conditions have improved. He now has access to Arabic satellite TV, can smoke cigarettes, eat food sent by his family, and make 30 minutes of phone calls per month, in addition to receiving visits from his family.

The Saudi channel al-Arabiyya was the first to say it, "Tarek Aziz, the only Christian being tried from the Saddam era, has been declared innocent."

Now many in Iraq are saying, behind closed doors, that Aziz was acquitted this time, and is likely to be acquitted during the next trial, because he is a Christian. They believe that the international community, and the Vatican, will stand up for the former deputy prime minister because they don't want a Christian figure to be accused of being an accomplice to war crimes with Saddam.

They forget - purposely at times - that when the Americans stormed Baghdad in April 2003, they bulldozed the grave of Michel Aflaq - another Christian - who had been co-founder of the Ba'ath Party. Aziz's preliminary innocence is not due to religion. It is due to the fact that he was the most civil among Saddam's team, and probably - it is up to the Iraqi justice to decide - does not have his hands drenched in blood like "Chemical Ali", or Saddam.

Anyone who knew Tarek Aziz, the cigar-chomping international face of the Saddam era after the Gulf War, realize that he was a sophisticated man of letters, who happened to be around the wrong people from the late 1960s onwards. His friends describe him as a principled statesman, and a "struggler" in the ranks of the Ba'ath Party from the 1950s, when the party was officially banned in Iraq.

If asked about his future back in 2002, for example, he would have probably imagined himself to be in retirement by 2009, busy writing his memoirs, in fluent English. If he was watching the news last week, he would have probably heard that former US secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has signed off a contract with Crown Publishers, to publish three memoirs for an approximated US$2.5 million.

Perhaps nobody will pay that money to Aziz to write his memoirs, but if he is released from jail, the man has a wealth of information to share, either in print, or in television interviews, having been the No 2 man in Iraq for nearly 30 years, and the only one alive, to tell the story. He did a lot and saw a lot, and needs to be released from jail to tell the story.

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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