Tareq Aziz, voice of Saddam's brutal rule, dies at 79

Agence France-Presse
Former Iraqi deputy prime minister Tareq Aziz testifies for the defence during Saddam's trial held in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone on May 24, 2006.

Iraq's jailed former foreign minister Tareq Aziz, who used his mastery of English to put a gloss on Saddam Hussein's murderous regime for two decades, died in hospital Friday aged 79.

As Saddam's principal spokesman, the bespectacled Aziz — the only Christian in the now-executed president's inner circle — was a recognizable figure internationally whose rise was attributed to unswerving loyalty to Saddam.

Aziz was found guilty of "deliberate murder and crimes against humanity" for a crackdown on religious parties in the 1980s and was sentenced to death in October 2010.

He was also handed various prison sentences for other crimes.

"Tareq Aziz died in Hussein Teaching Hospital in the city of Nasiriyah," where he was brought when his health worsened, said Adel Abdulhussein al-Dakhili, deputy governor of Dhi Qar province in south Iraq, where the ex-foreign minister was jailed.

Dakhili did not specify what Aziz died from, but he had long been in poor health, suffering from heart and respiratory problems, high blood pressure and diabetes.

His family repeatedly called for his release from custody, and in 2011, his lawyer said that Aziz, in a state of depression, wanted then-premier Nuri al-Maliki to accelerate his execution due to his worsening health.

Named foreign minister in 1983 and then deputy premier in 1991, Aziz was believed to have wielded little real power over decision-making.

But he became one of the regime's best-known figures abroad as Saddam's voice who matched and at time outshone his US peers in debate.

Born in the northern town of Sinjar on April 28, 1936, Aziz was from a Chaldean Catholic family.

Thick glasses, cigar 

He changed his name from Michael Yuhanna to Tareq Aziz to allay any hostility to his Christian background.

Aziz had known Saddam since the 1950s, but was kept outside the closed Sunni Muslim circle of the president's fellow clansmen from the city of Tikrit even as he rose to become the top Christian in the Baathist government.

Once omnipresent, haranguing the international media and instantly recognizable in his trademark thick glasses, neat uniform and large cigar, Aziz turned himself over to American custody a month after the March 2003 US-led invasion that overthrew Saddam and brought Iraq's Shiite majority to power.

Critics of the occupation charged that Aziz was held as a political prisoner to avenge his often-eloquent and erudite verbal assaults on Washington and London.

Very little was heard of Aziz during his time in custody.

He was reported to have suffered two heart attacks, with the second said to have been caused by a three-day hunger strike to protest his detention.

The image of an ailing old man is very different to his previous existence defending seemingly lost Saddam causes.

Instructed to explain the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 — when Saddam's use of Western civilians as "human shields" sparked outrage — or Baghdad's repeated standoffs with UN weapons inspectors through the 1990s, the genial Aziz always found the words that made world headlines.

Defending Saddam

After British and US air strikes on Baghdad in 1998, he laid into the international community, the Arab world and the "criminals" — referring to then British prime minister Tony Blair and US president Bill Clinton.

In early 2003, Aziz embarked on a high-profile tour of European capitals in a failed 11th-hour bid to prevent the US-led invasion.

His strong command of English, learned at university, not only ensured that the anglophone media turned out to listen, but also gave him a platform to deliver fierce tongue-lashings guaranteed to make diplomats squirm.

Even after Saddam's execution, Aziz took the stand in 2007 during the trial of three other leading regime members to insist that his longtime master was not guilty of crimes against humanity and had only been punishing would-be assassins.

He was referring to Saddam's death sentence for ordering the deaths of 148 people following a 1982 assassination attempt against him.

Aziz was already in the command structure of the Baath party in 1963 in charge of propaganda, five years before the Baathists consolidated their grip on power.

He ran the party newspaper Ath-Thawra and then in the mid-1970s became information minister.

He survived an apparent assassination bid by grenade at Baghdad's Mustansiriyah University in 1980 that killed several people and was blamed on the Shiite Dawa party, now a leading force in Iraq.