How Tariq Aziz's death sentence could drive a wedge into Iraqi politics

Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein's right-hand man, has been sentenced to hang in a move some see as politically motivated – and thus one that could further delay a new government.

Hadi Mizban/AP Photo
In this Sept. 5 photo, Tariq Aziz, former Iraqi foreign minister and deputy prime minister, speaks to the Associated Press in Baghdad, Iraq. Iraqi state TV says Aziz has been sentenced to death for persecuting Shiite political parties during Saddam Hussein's regime.

Iraqis thirsting for vengeance as much as justice welcomed the death sentence Tuesday of one of Saddam Hussein’s best-known officials, Tariq Aziz.

“The men of the former regime were all criminals – they killed many Iraqis and it is about time to taste what the people were suffering,” says Kareem Ahmed Jassim, a retired government employee playing cards at a coffee shop in central Baghdad.

But some politicians condemned the sentencing of the former deputy prime minister as a politically motivated move that could drive even more of a wedge into efforts to form a new government.

The judge who handed down the sentence, Mahmoud Saleh al-Hassan, ran unsuccessfully for parliament as part of the State of Law coalition of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. A major part of the trial was related to main targets of Mr. Hussein’s campaign against Islamic parties – including the Shiite Dawa Party of Mr. Maliki.

“We believe that the sentences announced today are intended to serve the interests of nominating al-Maliki for the prime minister’s position,” says Maysoon al-Damluji from the rival Iraqya bloc, a secular coalition with strong Sunni support. She says the sentence was also aimed at diverting attention from leaked US military documents linking Maliki’s office to secret prisons and other abuses.

More than seven months after Iraqis went to the polls in national elections, Maliki is struggling to win enough support to lead a coalition government.

International criticism of tribunal

Mr. Aziz, who also served as foreign minister, is best known as the international face of the regime. A fluent English speaker, he was the only high-ranking Christian in Hussein’s circle.

The high tribunal ruled that Aziz was guilty of crimes of humanity related to murder, torture, and forced exile of members of Islamic parties opposed to Hussein’s leadership. Two other Saddam-era officials, including the former president’s chief aide, were also sentenced to hang.

Aziz looked ashen and clutched the handrail in front of him as Judge Hassan literally shouted out the sentence, at one point asking the former foreign minister if he understood.

International experts have criticized the proceedings, saying former regime officials should be tried in an international court, free from political influence and intimidation.

Iraqis show little sympathy

But many Iraqis had little sympathy for Aziz, who is seen by some as having shown no remorse in the 10-month trial aired on Iraqi TV, during which he argued that he had not been involved in the regime's decisions.

“Are you kidding? I would have executed them even without a trial,” says Younis Hassan, a butcher playing cards at the same coffee shop in central Baghdad.

“The videos that are being shown on TV every day are enough evidence against them,” he says, referring to footage of atrocities by the former regime played on Iraqi television stations. “They are criminals and they must be executed as soon as possible.”

Aziz is elderly and in ill health. His family and lawyer have argued that he should be released for humanitarian reasons.

The verdict is subject to automatic appeal.

Aziz: Obama 'leaving Iraq to the wolves'

Aziz, who dealt extensively with the United States when Washington backed Iraq in the 1980s during its war with Iran, gave himself up to US authorities in 2003. He was believed to have surrendered in exchange for his family being flown out of the country to safety.

He has been in prison ever since and was handed over to the Iraqi detention system by US authorities earlier this year, along with most of the other accused former officials.

Before this latest trial began, Aziz was sentenced last year to 15 years in prison for involvement in the sentencing to death of merchants convicted of price manipulation in 1992. He was also sentenced to another seven years for a campaign against Iraqi Kurds.

In an interview with Britain’s Guardian newspaper in August, Aziz said President Barack Obama was abandoning the country and "leaving Iraq to the wolves."

Laith Hammoudi contributed to this report.

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