Terra Incognita: The enigma of Iraq’s Tariq Aziz
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Saddam Hussein’s foreign minister, charged with several crimes, may soon find himself at the end of a rope.
When Tariq Aziz is hung, and most likely he will be, he won’t be the first foreign minister to have been executed for taking part in the government of a lethal regime. Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s minister of foreign affairs during World War II, was executed after being found guilty at the Nuremburg trials. He also feigned innocence, claiming that he was not responsible for the crimes or even the warpath that his country embarked on from 1939.
Aziz, the indomitable foreign minister of Iraq from 1983 to 1991 and deputy prime minister from 1979 to 2003, has been sounding a familiar tune. In a long ranging, and rare, interview with The Guardian in August, he complained that the US was “leaving Iraq to the wolves” and claimed he did not commit any crimes against civilians.
The Iraqi High Tribunal, the court that has sentenced numerous former regime members, disagrees. He has been convicted of a role in the deaths of 42 merchants executed in 1992, planning the displacement of Kurds and persecuting Islamic political parties.
Aziz hasn’t been swiftly executed, as was the case with Saddam Hussein, and demands for clemency have poured in. The Vatican, the EU, the UN and the Greek and Russian governments have all expressed their displeasure over his death sentence. As a Christian, he has received support from Iraq’s bishops. The Chaldean patriarchal vicar, Shlemon Waduni, and the Latin archbishop, Jean Sleiman, have both expressed opposition to the death penalty. Some others have gone further. Muriel Mirak-Weissbach, a radical leftist journalist who has covered Armenia and the Palestinians, wrote in September in Dissident Voice that “Tariq Aziz should be released.”
THE ENIGMA of Aziz is a story that captures both the past and the present of Iraq and the Middle East. He was born Mikhail Yuhanna in 1936 near Bakhdida, a major Assyrian Christian town in northern Iraq. Educated in Baghdad, like many Arab Christians of his generation he became interested in Arab nationalism and socialism. His life mirrored other Christian Arab nationalist leaders who became influential diplomats, such as Boutros Boutros-Ghali (born 1922) of Egypt and the Palestinian Afif Safieh (born 1950). Aziz became the editor of the Ba’ath Party newspaper Al Thawra.
In a declassified interview with the FBI’s George Piro in 2004, Saddam Hussein remembered that in those early days of the party no one distinguished between Christians, Shi’ites, Kurds and Sunnis. Saddam claimed “it was only later that [I] learned that one of the party’s leaders, Tariq Aziz, was a Christian.”
Aziz was seen as a formidable member of the party and became very close to Saddam. In April 1980 members of the Shi’ite Islamic Dawa party attempted to assassinate this Christian consigliore. This was against the backdrop of increasing border tensions between Iran and Iraq. At the time the Dawa party’s headquarters had been relocated to Teheran, whose radical Shi’ite fundamentalist leaders were using it as a tool to topple the Arab socialist regime in Iraq. Saddam’s reaction was calculated. He waited five months and then launched a surprise attack on the mullahs. His model for the attack: Israel’s lightning victory of 1967.
One story that emerged from the FBI interviews with Saddam was that Mahmoud Abbas was present in Iraq at some point and that he “requested money, training, weapons and transportation to carry out missions to attack Israel.” What role Aziz played is not clear and will likely go with him to the gallows.
In the 1980s Aziz was the point man for Iraq’s relations with the West. Donald Rumsfeld, later to be George W. Bush’s secretary of defense, came to Baghdad in 1983 and met with Aziz and Saddam. He agreed that the “U.S and Iraq... [share] many common interests.” In 1984 assistant secretary of state Richard Murphy met with Aziz and discussed possible arms shipments. At this time Aziz was described as a cigar-chomping dandy who sported a military uniform, despite not being a soldier, and wore a pearl handled revolved. He was at the infamous July 25, 1990 meeting with US ambassador April Glaspie at which the Iraqis believed they received a “green light” to invade Kuwait.
The Kuwait crises, which was a strange result of the Iran-Iraq War, brought Aziz into the international limelight. He was tasked with heading off war and met with secretary of state James Baker in Geneva in January, 1991. In the seven-hour meeting he mentioned that the Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait should be tied to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The US and its allies would have none of it and on January 17 the bombing of Iraq began.
The cigars now discarded, Aziz took on a harried look in the years that followed. His son was arrested for corruption in 2000 and sentenced to prison, although he was subsequently released. Nevertheless he faithfully served his friend Saddam through 2003 when he was tasked with getting the Vatican to intervene on Iraq’s behalf and prevent the US invasion. His Catholic upbringing was often touted during these meetings. But to no avail. On March 20 US troops crossed the sand berms that separate Kuwait from Iraq.
On April 24, 14 days after Baghdad fell, Aziz emerged from hiding and surrendered. He now complains that he wished he had been martyred. At the time he had more pressing concerns. He told The Guardian’s Martin Chulov, “I told the Americans that if they took my family to Amman, they could take me to prison. My family left on an American plane. And I went to prison on a Thursday.”
SO HE has sat in prison for more than seven years, growing gaunt, frail and now looking every bit his 74 years. Ayad Allawi, a Shi’ite former Ba’athist and now head of the Iraqiya bloc of political parties that won a plurality of the vote in 2010 parliamentary elections, has said that Aziz is his friend. It is no surprise. Nuri al-Malaki’s party, the second largest in Iraq, is a religious and ideological descendant of the same Iranian backed Dawa terrorists who tried to assassinate Aziz in 1980. Aziz’s hometown votes heavily for Allawi. So things come full circle.
But was Aziz’s “Christianity” just a shill? Chulov found him wearing a Muslim prayer cap in his recent interview. Did he work to improve the lives of Christian Iraqis under Saddam? It seems that in that period the Christians at least had greater security. Since the US invasion and the terrorist-sectarian chaos that followed, the Christian population has declined almost by half from 1.1 million to 600,000 or less. Their priests have been beheaded and their churches bombed. They have been thrown to the wolves. And their last representative, a member of that uniquely 20th century class, the Christian Arab nationalist, may soon find himself at the end of a rope. He remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma.