Tarik Aziz, the once-unflappable diplomat whose face became synonymous with the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, has died, according to reports Friday from Iraq. He was 79.
Aziz, who had been in custody since surrendering to U.S. forces in 2003, died of a heart attack in a hospital in southern Iraq, reported the Iraqi Sumariyah news network, quoting local officials.
Once a familiar figure in news reports, staunchly defending Hussein, he suffered a stroke in 2010 and had long been in poor health.
An Iraqi court sentenced Aziz to death in October 2010 for the persecution of opposition religious parties during the Hussein era. Some speculated that his Christian faith and pleas on his behalf from the Vatican and ex-Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, may have saved him from hanging.
After his surrender to U.S. forces, Aziz sank into obscurity, surfacing only to attend one of the many locally televised trials that most Iraqis long ago stopped watching.
But for most of the previous two decades, his owlish face had routinely been broadcast around the globe. Armed with impeccable English and a smooth manner, the cigar-smoking Aziz became the diplomatic symbol of the Iraqi government, the man Hussein deployed to convey his message to the world.
Aziz’s status as a Christian in a Baathist regime dominated by Sunni Muslims — many from Hussein’s home town of Tikrit — contributed to Aziz being somewhat of an outsider, despite his elevated position in Hussein’s inner circle.
Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III once described him as a highly professional negotiator who “did a very good job with an extraordinarily bad brief.” Indeed, one notable moment for Aziz involved Baker in 1991, when the two men sat across from each other trying to negotiate a way to avoid the first Gulf War after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
Baker passed to Aziz a letter from President George H.W. Bush to Hussein. Aziz read the letter slowly then returned it, saying he would not deliver it because the language was inappropriate for addressing a head of state. The war began four days later.
Aziz was known as being the ultimate “yes” man to the Iraqi president. An old joke in diplomatic circles has Hussein asking Aziz the time. “What time would you like it to be?” comes the response.
He was born Mikhail Yuhanna on Jan. 6, 1936, in the village of Tell Kaif, near the northern Iraq city of Mosul, and was a member of the Chaldean Catholic sect. At some point he changed his name to Tarik Aziz, Arabic for “glorious past.”
His family moved to Baghdad when he was a child. His father waited tables in a saloon, and a 1990 profile of Aziz in the London Observer speculated that his minority religion and poor station in life made him eager to succeed.
“These things always affected his personality and made him look for a strong man to protect him,” recalled an unidentified Iraqi exile.
That strong man was Saddam Hussein, who was making a name for himself as a street tough willing to take on rivals without hesitation. Aziz, in contrast, had a degree in English literature from Baghdad University and taught briefly before taking up journalism.
After the collapse of the Baath Party’s first brief reign in 1963, the party splintered and Aziz, who did propaganda work for the party, joined a faction from Tikrit, a city in north-central Iraq. He met the up-and-coming Hussein, a Tikrit native. Their relationship would span 40 years.
Hussein became president in 1979. In 1983, with the country in the midst of a debilitating war with Iran, Aziz was made foreign minister with the mandate to convince the world of the justness of Iraq’s cause. The task was made all the more difficult because Iraq had started the war and had used chemical weapons against the Iranians.
Nonetheless, Aziz largely succeeded. The Americans decided to help the Iraqis, viewing the secular Baghdad regime as a buffer against Islamist Iran. The United States provided Baghdad with top-secret spy satellite data that gave the Iraqis a significant advantage, though not enough to win the war.
The U.S alliance with Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war is often recalled bitterly today in Iran, which suffered thousands of casualties from Iraqi chemical weapons attacks.
Aziz denied Iraq used chemical weapons and once laughingly asked a reporter, “Have you smelled any chemical gases here?” But he later became the first Iraqi official to admit chemical agents had been used, while also charging that the Iranians employed them first.
In a 1991 Cabinet shake-up, Aziz became a deputy prime minister, a post he would hold until the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
On the eve of the war, rumors began to spread that Aziz had been assassinated as he tried to flee the country. To counter the story, Aziz made a dramatic appearance in military uniform to prove he did not try to escape.
“I am carrying my pistol to confirm to you that we are ready to fight the aggressors,” he said.
A little more than a month later, on April 24, 2003, he surrendered to U.S. forces.
Aziz was next seen in public, wearing pajamas and looking pale, when he testified for the defense at the trial of Hussein in 2006. But he was not himself tried until April 2008, on charges of executing 42 merchants who had been accused of extortion. In March 2009 he was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
The following August he was sentenced to seven more years in prison for his part in the forced displacement of Kurds in northern Iraq, followed by the October 2010 death sentence.
As his health reportedly deteriorated, his family repeatedly pleaded for him to be freed on compassionate grounds. The head of the Chaldean Church in Iraq, Cardinal Emmanual Delly, also urged his release. But the U.S. military said it was up to the Iraqi government to authorize his release, and the government refused.
The Associated Press reported that Aziz is survived by his wife, Violet; sons Ziad and Saddam; and daughters Zeinab and Mayssa. Most of his family now resides in neighboring Jordan, but his wife was able to visit Aziz before he died, the AP reported, quoting an Iraqi official.
McDonnell reported from Beirut. Kennedy and Sly are former Times staff writers.
Special correspondent Nabih Bulos in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.