Tariq Aziz: a portrait of Saddam Hussein's right-hand man

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, a staunch supporter and friend of Saddam Hussein, died Friday.

Samir Mezban/Reuters/file
Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz speaks to an Egyptian delegation in Baghdad, in this February 25, 2003 file photo.

Tariq Aziz, the public face of Saddam Hussein's Iraq known for his English-speaking skills, his Christian faith, and his commitment to Hussein's regime, died on Friday in an Iraqi hospital after spending the last years of his life in prison. 

A diplomat and a politician, he served as deputy prime minister of Iraq from 1981 to 2003 and also acted as the foreign minister during part of that time. He was often seen dressed in a military uniform for his public appearances. 

As AP reported, Aziz was born to a Chaldean Catholic family and studied English literature at the Baghdad College of Fine Arts. He worked as a teacher and a journalist and in 1957 joined the Baath party – a political group known for its secularism and Pan-Arab unionism. He met Saddam Hussein through their common interest in the party and they formed a bond that lasted nearly 50 years. 

When US troops stormed Baghdad and overthrew Hussein in 2003, Aziz willingly surrendered, possibly hoping for some leeway in the criminal charges that awaited him. 

But there was no sympathy to be found in the Iraqi court.

In 2009, Aziz was convicted of crimes wrought during Saddam's regime. These included the execution of 42 Iraqi traders who had been accused of manipulating food prices while Iraq was subject to international trade sanctions and his role in the forced displacement of Kurds, the BBC reported. He was subsequently sentenced to death in 2010. 

As The Christian Science Monitor noted, there was some criticism surrounding Aziz's court hearings. International experts said that regime leaders should be tried in international courts that were free from political influence and public frenzy.

But the court proceedings continued and the diplomat would face justice.

"Aziz looked ashen and clutched the handrail in front of him as [the judge] literally shouted out the [death] sentence, at one point asking the former foreign minister if he understood," The Christian Science Monitor reported

And yet, Aziz received a special exemption. According to the Associated Press, the Vatican pleaded for his life. In the end his Christian faith, a standout in Muslim-dominated Baghdad and especially in Hussein's exclusively Muslim inner-circle, protected him from the fate of the other regime-leaders. Jalal Talabani, then the president of Iraq, refused to sign off on his death sentence, citing Aziz's age and religion. 

In the aftermath of Aziz's prosecution, conviction, and eventual death, his family has expressed their personal grief at his imprisonment and pride in what they see as his love of country. 

"It is so sad that he had to go this way," Aziz's daughter, Zeinab, told Fox News. "So sad that he didn't see his grandchildren."

"But I want people to remember what he did," she added. "He really fought for his country, in his own way."

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