Page last updated at 19:54 GMT, Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Public face of the Saddam regime

By John Simpson
World affairs editor, BBC News

Tariq Aziz was the public face of Saddam Hussein's regime, more sophisticated and more aware of the outside world than his president.

Tariq Aziz, file photo from July 2004
Aziz surrendered to US troops in 2003

But he was no less tough. He could not afford to be.

He wore his Baath Party uniform with pride at times when a less committed man would have worn civilian clothes.

And although in later years he was not a member of the small cabal around Saddam, he was a leading member of the Revolutionary Command Council.

That means he would certainly have voted for the murders for which he has now been sentenced.

As a person, he is certainly neither meek nor gentle.

In January 1991, a few days before the coalition forces began the bombing of Iraq, a BBC cameraman and I waylaid him in a Baghdad hotel and began asking questions.

In front of a crowd of foreign journalists he shouted angrily that if we asked him anything else he would have us liquidated.

He was a Baathist and a nationalist along the same lines as Saddam Hussein himself, whom he seems to have met first in the 1950s.

Although he comes from a Christian family, this is a matter of historical chance rather than an indication of his opinions.

Tariq Aziz changed his name from Mikhail Yuhanna (Michael John) to something much more Arab-sounding, in order to fit in better with his Baathist colleagues.

Victor's justice?

Anyone who sat around the council table with Saddam Hussein as long as he did would have been party to many decisions which the outside world would have called criminal.

Born in 1936, near Mosul, northern Iraq
Studied English literature and became a journalist
The most senior Christian in the toppled regime
Enlisted US support for war on Iran
Met US President Ronald Reagan at the White House in 1984
In US custody since April 2003

Torture, murder, large-scale theft were routine matters for the Iraqi regime.

All the same, plenty of people in Iraq - and not just the former Baathists - believe that Tariq Aziz has now been sentenced to what amounts to life imprisonment simply because he was Saddam Hussein's front-man.

Once again, the phrase "victor's justice" is being used.

Tariq Aziz was probably never in a position to take the life and death decisions of the Iraqi regime himself.

He would have raised his hand to vote in favour of those decisions, because to abstain or vote against them, with Saddam at the head of the table, was to risk death.

There was a suggestion early in his trial that he might be executed if found guilty. His judges clearly did not feel that would be right.

He was as loyal as anyone could have been to Saddam; but it will be hard to persuade the majority of the Arab world that Tariq Aziz, the quintessential tough negotiator, deserves life imprisonment for the way in which he showed his loyalty.

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