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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.