Tariq Aziz, Former Iraqi Foreign Minister Under Saddam Hussein, Dead At 79

Tariq Aziz, who was perhaps the most well-known face of the Iraqi government in the Western world during Saddam Hussein’s reign, has died at the age of 79:

Tariq Aziz, a top minister for Saddam Hussein who served as Iraq’s international spokesman for more than 20 years and was perhaps the government’s most recognizable figure after the longtime dictator, died June 5 at a hospital in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah. He was believed to be 79.

His death was confirmed by Yahya al-Nassiri, the governor of Dhi Qar province, of which Nasiriyah is the capital. He said Mr. Aziz was moved to a prison there a year and a half ago after initially being held in Baghdad.

Saadi al-Majid, a local health official, said Mr. Aziz was transferred from Nasiriyah prison to the city’s al-Hussein hospital Friday afternoon after suffering a heart attack and was pronounced dead a few minutes after he was admitted. Mr. Aziz had been suffering from chronic heart problems and had made regular visits to the hospital, Majid said.

Mr. Aziz had been sentenced to death for the persecution of Shiite Muslims following an aborted uprising at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. But, in 2010, Iraq’s then-president, Jalal Talabani, declined to sign the execution order.

“I sympathize with Tariq Aziz because he is an Iraqi Christian,” Talabani told a French television station. “Moreover he is an old man who is over 70.”

Apart from being implicated in the repression of Shiites, Mr. Aziz was convicted of three separate crimes, including his purported involvement in the execution of 42 Baghdad merchants, for which he received a 15-year sentence. The merchants were accused of raising food prices when Iraq was under sanctions imposed by the United Nations after the 1991 conflict.

With large horn-rimmed glasses, a gray mustache, silver hair and ever-present Cuban cigars, Mr. Aziz looked more like a college professor than the frontispiece of a brutal regime.

As foreign minister, he tried to present Hussein and his government in a more moderate light. In the 1980s, Mr. Aziz played a major role in reviving ties with the United States during Iraq’s long war with Iran, only to see the relationship obliterated after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, a regional U.S. ally.

During the run-up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Mr. Aziz tried to solicit help from Russia and China to get sanctions eased. He achieved modest success when Russia agreed to veto the U.N. Security Council resolution granting permission to invade Iraq.

Weeks before the 2003 invasion, Mr. Aziz visited Pope John Paul II and other leaders in Europe to seek peace. He tried to make the case that support for an American-led war against Iraq would be perceived by many Muslims around the world as an assault on their faith and could have terrible consequences.

“If other countries, especially here in Europe — the Christian countries — if they participate in such a war of aggression, it will be interpreted by the Arab and Muslim world as a crusade against the Arabs and against Islam,” he said at the time.

Mr. Aziz was one of a small circle of Hussein associates to survive in power since the 1968 revolution that led to the establishment of the regime, said Judith S. Yaphe, a research fellow and Iraq expert at the National Defense University.

“He survived because he was not a threat and was totally, totally loyal to Saddam,” Yaphe said.

Mr. Aziz traveled widely. Foreigners meeting him saw an urbane and relatively sophisticated politician, but his influence on policy was limited. “To be influential might have been dangerous,” Yaphe said. “Did Saddam listen to advice? Maybe he did. Tariq had skills that Saddam needed in terms of his connections to the outside world and his knowledge of the West.”

Mr. Aziz’s global presence and titles of deputy prime minister and foreign minister belied his minor role in Hussein’s inner circle. In the deck of cards featuring 55 most-wanted Iraqis that was issued by the Pentagon to U.S. troops before the invasion of Iraq, Mr. Aziz was the eight of spades, ranking 43rd on the list.

A Chaldean Christian by birth and a college graduate, he was an outsider in Hussein’s overwhelmingly Sunni tribal and poorly educated clique. In diplomatic settings, Mr. Aziz could come off as witty and charming, though he was an obstinate defender of his nation’s brutal policies.

He defended Iraq’s use of chemical weapons, invasion of Kuwait and repression of Shiites and minority Kurds. Under questioning by the U.N. Special Commission searching for Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in the 1990s, he vigorously denied that his country had biological and nuclear weapons.

During the tense buildup to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, he predicted that the United States would be defeated in what he described as “a bloody conflict” in which “America will lose and America will be humiliated.”

After the war, Mr. Aziz said President George H.W. Bush halted U.S. troops outside Baghdad because they had been destroyed on the battlefield. In fact, Bush was honoring the U.N. Security Council resolution and international agreements not to topple the Hussein regime.

Mr. Aziz was born Mikhail Yuhanna in a village outside Mosul, Iraq, in 1936. He possibly changed his name to prove his Arabism, Yaphe said. His parents were Chaldean Christians, members of a sect of the Catholic Church.

As a child, Mr. Aziz spoke Aramaic, the tongue widely considered the language of Jesus. He grew up in Baghdad and studied English literature under British teachers at the University of Baghdad.

Shortly after graduating, Mr. Aziz became a reporter for the newspaper Baghdad al-Jumhuriyah (the Republic). He also joined the Arab Socialist Baath Party. He became editor in chief of the newspaper in 1963, when the Baath Party seized power in Iraq.

When the party split and the government fell several months later, Mr. Aziz aligned with a rising faction led by Hussein. In 1968, when the Baathists returned to power, he became editor of al-Thawra (the Revolution), a party organ.

In the early 1970s, Mr. Aziz became minister of information, the government’s chief propagandist. Later that decade, he became a member of the Revolutionary Command Council, the party’s governing body. When Hussein became president of Iraq in 1979, he appointed Mr. Aziz deputy prime minister, a job he held until the fall of the government in 2003. Mr. Aziz was foreign minister from 1983 to 1991.

Given the political changes in Iraq, it is unlikely that many will mourn for Aziz in his home country, but at least he avoided the fate of his leader.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Gustopher says:

    I always had a soft spot for him — he would repeat whatever he was told to repeat, always with a slight edge of bemusement as if he knew just as well as everyone else that nothing he said would be believed, whether it happened to be true or not.

    Don’t get me wrong, there’s no reason to believe that he wasn’t a completely amoral sycophant for a brutal dictator, but as completely amoral sycophants for brutal dictators go, he seemed seemed nice.

    It’s like Gina Gershon in “Showgirls” — everyone around her was entirely serious and thought that they were making great art, but there she was in the middle of it, just doing the job and quietly laughing to herself, and explaining that yes, she too ate dog food. Except with actual physical torture rather, etc.

  2. Paul Hooson says:

    As bad as Tariq Aziz was, he was a Christian, and part of a more inclusive and less sectarian government in Iraq under the old Gamel Nasser model of Arab Socialist rule under Saddam Hussein. Bathist rule lost power in both Egypt and Iraq, where it was an Arab nationalist reaction to British colonial rule in the region. Only in Syria does the Arab Socialist style government of the Assad regime attempt to keep a grip on power. – Arab Socialism may have offered independence from British rule, but citizens did not live under democracy, and faced oppression in these authoritarian regimes, but they did provide a transition of rule to eventual forms of democracy, although sectarian differences would tear at these forms of democracy. Arab Socialism at best only presented order compared to the chaos if sectarian frictions and civil wars.