Published April 24, 2003
Tariq Aziz was once Iraq's face to the world -- elegant and eloquent, the white-haired foreign minister who made Saddam Hussein's case before the United Nations before and during the 1991 Gulf War.
The U.S. military confirmed Thursday that Aziz, one of the most recognizable faces in the deck of cards distributed to American troops, was in the custody of coalition forces.
But he was not one of the most powerful figures in Saddam's regime -- he was the eight of spades, No. 43 in the military's 55 most wanted.
His star, it seemed, had fallen. In the early 1990s, he was a familiar presence at U.N. Security Council meetings, and often made trips to world capitals. In recent years, he received visiting delegations to Baghdad.
In the run-up to this war, it was Mohammed Al-Douri -- the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations -- who appeared before the world body.
Aziz's loyalty to Saddam, though, was a constant.
Last month, a week into the war, he had this to say to the invading forces: "We will receive them with the best music they have ever heard and the best flowers that have ever grown in Iraq. ... We don't have candy; we can only offer them bullets."
He was the only Christian in Saddam's inner circle; born Mikhail Yuhanna to a Chaldean Catholic family, he later changed his name to Tariq Aziz.
He was born in Tell Kaif, Iraq, in 1936 -- a circumstance that denied him the most powerful positions in Saddam's governments, which were reserved for members of the Iraqi leader's Tikriti clan.
He studied English at the Baghdad College of Fine Arts and became a teacher and then a journalist, rising to chief editor of al-Thawra, the Baath Party newspaper. After the party took power in 1968, he took a series of ever more powerful posts.
Saddam took charge in 1979; Aziz was deputy prime minister a year later when he was the target of an assassination attempt by the Iranian-backed ad-Dawa Islami. The attackers threw a grenade at him in downtown Baghdad. Several people were killed; Aziz was injured.
He took over the foreign ministry in 1983. In 1990, when Saddam's forces invaded Kuwait, Aziz was given the job of justifying the move to the world community.
He did so with fluent English and a former journalist's word craft. At one point, appearing on the ABC-TV show Nightline, he said Iraq was forced to act because Kuwait was flooding the world oil market.
"War can be done by arms, war can be done by economy," he said, adding, "So we reached the conclusion that this handful of sheiks, corrupt sheiks, selfish sheiks, wanted to destroy this nation."
After Iraq lost the war. In its aftermath, he was the point man U.N. weapons inspectors dealt with on political issues, though he was not someone they would go to on technical matters.
Nonetheless, at one point, he announced that he himself had taken ensured the destruction of what would come to be known as weapons of mass destruction -- and in the years following, right up to the war, the United Nations inspectors worked to confirm that it was done.
When Richard Butler, the chief weapons inspector, first visited Baghdad, Aziz gave him a $75 cigar (Aziz, a cigar aficionado, smoked Cuban Cohibas). But the relationship soured, and the U.N. inspectors pulled out in 1998.
In the years since, Aziz was not nearly as visible as he had been. When Saddam promoted him to deputy prime minister after the Gulf War, he was forced to relinquish the foreign ministry portfolio.
It is said that Saddam's son Odai did not like Aziz. Odai's newspaper Babil often criticized foreign policy. In 1996 Aziz's son Ziad was arrested for corruption in what Baghdad insiders saw as a turf battle between Ziad and Odai, who was equally known for graft.
But Tariq Aziz still had some clout; he was Saddam's deputy on the foreign affairs and media committees, and served as acting foreign minister for four months in 2001.
When war broke out last month, rumor had it that he had defected to the American side. He held a news conference to deny it.
"I am carrying my pistol to confirm to you that we are ready to fight the aggressors," he said. "American soldiers are nothing but mercenaries and they will be defeated."