Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 October - 3 November 2010
Issue No. 1021
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Silencing a loose cannon

Did Aziz's recent hints that he would speak about Washington's support for Iraq during the war with Iran seal his fate, wonders Salah Hemeid

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Tariq Aziz, former Iraqi foreign minister and deputy prime minister has been sentenced to death for persecuting Shia political parties during Saddam Hussein's regime

Tariq Aziz, top aide to Iraq's former president Saddam Hussein, was sentenced to death by an Iraqi court on Tuesday on charges of "deliberate murder and crimes against humanity". He was found guilty of crimes against members of Shia political parties opposed to Saddam's regime. The ruling against Aziz, a former deputy prime minister who also served as foreign minister, came as a surprise as he was not known to have been involved in Saddam's apparatus of oppression.

Death sentences were also handed down for other former officials in Saddam's government including his secretary Abed Hammoud, and former interior minister Sadoun Shaker.

Aziz, 74, had been sentenced to 15 years in prison for crimes against humanity, and was acquitted earlier this year on charges of ordering a 1999 crackdown against Shia protesters. He has been in jail for several years since he surrendered to US forces shortly after the March 2003 invasion.

His lawyer Badei Aref described the ruling as politically motivated. "This is unjust and unjustified," said Aref from Amman, Jordan. During his trial Aziz maintained that he was only responsible for Iraq's diplomatic and foreign relations, and had no ties to the executions and purges carried out by Saddam's regime.

Under Saddam, Aziz cultivated an image of an apologist who used his well- spoken English and diplomatic skills to justify to the world Saddam's mishaps, including his war with Iran, the invasion of Kuwait and the 1991 Gulf war with the US-led coalition.

A few days after the US 2003 invasion he surrendered to American troops in Baghdad, apparently for his own safety in exchange for letting his family leave Iraq to neighbouring Jordan. In July, US forces who held Aziz since 2003 handed responsibility for him over to the Iraq government. Surprisingly, he was allowed to talk to Western media from his new Iraqi-controlled prison.

In August Aziz gave an interview to the London newspaper The Guardian in which he criticised Saddam for launching the Kuwait's invasion. He also said he would divulge details of the various regional conflicts dating back to the 1980-89 war between Iraq and Iran.

The remarks caused concern that he might want to disclose diplomatic secrets related to Saddam's regime contacts with the Americans especially US role in the eight year-old war. He is believed to have helped win US support for Iraq in that war to forge strong political and economic ties with Washington. The Reagan administration at the time was widely believed to have been trying to lure Saddam away from his close economic and military relationship with the Soviet Union.

In January, Aziz was hospitalised after suffering a stroke. In a recent interview, he predicted he will die in prison, citing old age and lengthy prison sentences. Aziz was a long time Baath Party member before he was appointed editor of the party's main newspaper Atthawra after the party came to power in 1968, and later became information minister.

Aziz, a Roman Catholic has appealed for international intervention and is understood to have written to Pope Benedict for support. The Vatican urged clemency for Aziz. "We really want the sentence against Aziz not to be carried out." Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said in a statement Tuesday. His lawyer, Aref, said he will appeal the sentence.

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