LONDON – LONDON (AP) — The man who once served as Saddam Hussein's leading lieutenant has appealed to the United States to extend its presence in Iraq, saying that President Barack Obama is abandoning the country, according to a British newspaper interview published Friday.
Tariq Aziz, whose long tenure as Saddam's foreign minister made him the international face of the Iraqi dictator's regime, was quoted by The Guardian newspaper as saying his hopes about Obama had been dashed.
"I thought he was going to correct some of the mistakes of Bush," the paper quoted Aziz as saying from his jail cell in north Baghdad. "But Obama is a hypocrite. He cannot leave us like this. He is leaving Iraq to the wolves."
However, Aziz's Jordan-based Iraqi lawyer, Badee Aref, challenged the accuracy of The Guardian's report. He confirmed that Aziz gave the interview, but insisted that the 74-year-old was misquoted.
"I know how Mr. Aziz speaks and I know that he's not very aware or informed of what goes on in the world outside the jailhouse where he is," Aref told The Associated Press. "So, how could he say what he said about the U.S. troop withdrawal and about President Obama? He was definitely misquoted."
The Guardian said that its reporter, Martin Chulov, was traveling and wouldn't be available for comment. But the paper did release a statement saying it stood behind the story.
"We wholeheartedly reject any suggestion that Mr. Aziz has been misquoted," the statement said.
In its story, The Guardian said that Aziz had been keeping up with events in Iraq via television. It wasn't immediately clear if the paper had made a recording of the interview.
According to the Guardian, Aziz refused to condemn his former boss, who was executed in December 2006.
"If I speak now about regrets, people will view me as an opportunist," he said, according to the paper.
Aziz has already been sentenced to 15 years in prison for crimes against humanity, and is accused of being part of a campaign targeting members of Iraq's Dawa Party, of which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a member. Aziz, who has suffered several strokes, appeared frail at a court appearance last month. The Guardian's piece offered no assessment of Aziz's condition, but said that his prison was "clean and well-managed."
The paper said Aziz offered a robust defense of his time as Saddam's deputy — and insight into the origins of the 2003 Iraq War.
Saddam preferred to keep the world guessing about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, Aziz was quoted as saying. But he explained that it was more about maintaining Iraq's regional standing than pushing the country into conflict with the U.S. and Britain.
"Partially it was about Iran," Aziz was quoted as saying. "They had waged war on us for eight years, so we Iraqis had a right to deter them. Saddam was a proud man. He had to defend the dignity of Iraq. He had to show that he was neither wrong nor weak.
"Now Iran is building a weapons program. Everybody knows it and nobody is doing anything. Why?"
Associated Press Writer Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan contributed to this report.
The Guardian's interview: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/aug/05/tariq-aziz-interview-iraq
(This version corrects Aziz's age to 74.)