WASHINGTON – Farouk Hijazi (search), Iraq's current ambassador to Tunisia and once the No. 3 in the Mukhabarat (search), Saddam Hussein's feared intelligence agency, was in the custody of U.S forces in Iraq, an American official said Friday.
Coalition officials thought last week that Hijazi might have escaped to Syria, a charge Damascus vehemently denied. But Pentagon officials confirmed to Fox News that he was seized on the Iraqi border coming out of Syria.
Hijazi, who also has served as Iraq's ambassador to Turkey, is considered a prize catch, although he was not among the top 55 most wanted officials.
He is "the biggest catch so far I would say," former CIA Director James Woolsey (search) told a television news show Friday morning.
American officials claim that in December 1998, Hijazi met with Usama bin Laden (search) in Kandahar, Afghanistan, close to Al Qaeda's terrorist training camps. The U.S. says it does not know what they discussed.
Iraqi officials denied that Hijazi met with bin Laden, or that any relationship between Saddam's regime and Al Qaeda existed.
Hijazi is also believed to have been involved in the plot to assassinate former President George H.W. Bush when he visited Kuwait in 1993 soon after leaving the White House.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials were pleased to have former Iraqi official Tariq Aziz (search) in custody. The deputy prime minister and former foreign minister under Saddam was the 12th man on the American list of 55 most wanted Iraqis taken into custody.
The Pentagon says three others, including Saddam's cousin Ali "Chemical Ali" Hassan al-Majid, have been killed.
A spokesman at Central Command headquarters in Qatar, Lt. Herb Josey, said Aziz surrendered on Thursday. Josey gave no further details. ABC News reported that Aziz's son had been involved in the negotiations.
Aziz's prominence in the regime could make him a source for the best information yet on the fate of Saddam and his two sons, as well as the location of any hidden weapons of mass destruction.
The capture of top Iraqi figures could prompt other wanted officials to turn themselves in, Pentagon officials said. Information from the others already in custody also could lead to more on the wanted list, the officials said.
Aziz was No. 43 on the U.S. most-wanted list, the eight of spades in the military's card deck of top Iraqi leaders. He was the only Christian in Saddam's inner circle, most of whom were Sunni Muslims like Saddam. He served as foreign minister during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and was a frequent spokesman at that time.
In Great Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair's office described Aziz's detention as "a welcome development."
With his flawless English, the silver-haired Aziz also frequently represented his government's views to Western media, denouncing the United States and claiming Iraq had no chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.
He last appeared in public March 19, when he held a news conference in Baghdad to quash rumors he had fled the Iraqi capital.
"I am carrying my pistol to confirm to you that we are ready to fight the aggressors," Aziz said then. "American soldiers are nothing but mercenaries and they will be defeated."
Although he was one of Saddam's most loyal aides, Aziz, like most who were not from Saddam's Tikriti clan, had virtually no power, U.S. officials have said. That could explain his longevity in Saddam's inner circle — without an independent power base, he posed no threat.
Saddam promoted him after the Gulf war to deputy prime minister, forcing him to relinquish the foreign ministry portfolio. Some believe this reshuffle had to do with Saddam's discomfort with Cabinet ministers who became too well known.
Saddam's son Odai did not like Aziz. 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.
Ziad Aziz served about two years in prison for corruption before Saddam pardoned him. Tariq Aziz has two daughters and another son, named Saddam.
Despite his fluctuating relationship with Saddam, Tariq Aziz retained influence, if not power.
In early 1990, Saddam toyed with opening up his regime and introducing a new constitution that would grant limited freedoms. Aziz advised against this, saying it would be the beginning of the end of Baath party rule. Saddam listened and the reforms never transpired.
Aziz in the 1990s was Saddam's deputy on the foreign affairs and media committees, interpreting Saddam's policies to the ministers in those areas. He also conducted the government's political negotiations with the U.N. weapons inspectors.
Born in 1936 near the northern city of Mosul to a Chaldean Christian (search) family, Aziz studied English literature at Baghdad College of Fine Arts and became a teacher and journalist. He joined the Baath Party in 1957, working closely with Saddam to overthrow the British-imposed monarchy.
Aziz changed his name from Mikhail Yuhanna — "Michael John." In Arabic, Tariq Aziz means "glorious past."
He was wounded in a 1980 assassination attempt by an Iranian-backed Shiite fundamentalist group named ad-Dawa Islami (search), the Islamic Call. Members of the group threw a grenade at him in downtown Baghdad, killing several people.
The attack was one of several Saddam blamed on Iran, part of his justification for his expulsion of large numbers of Shiite Muslims and his September 1980 invasion of Iran.
Aziz was instrumental in restoring diplomatic relations with the United States in 1984 after a 17-year break. He had met in 1983 with Donald H. Rumsfeld, then a private envoy from President Reagan and now defense secretary. At the time, the United States backed Iraq as a buffer against Iran's Islamic extremism.
Fox News' Jim Angle and the Associated Press contributed to this report.