WASHINGTON – U.S. forces in Iraq have taken custody of Tariq Aziz, the former deputy prime minister and the most visible Iraqi leader other than Saddam Hussein.
Officials at the Pentagon and at Central Command headquarters in Qatar said Thursday they did not know whether Aziz was captured or whether he turned himself in.
On the U.S. list of the 55 most-wanted members of the former government, Aziz was No. 43, the eight of spades in the military’s card deck of top Iraqi leaders.
His prominence in the regime could make Aziz a source for the best information yet on the fate of Saddam and his two sons, as well as the location of any hidden weapons of mass destruction.
“We can confirm Tariq Aziz is now under coalition control,” said Central Command spokeswoman Capt. Dani Burrows.
Aziz was often the public face of Iraq when responding to accusations by the United States and United Nations.
He was the only Christian in Saddam’s inner circle, most of whom were Sunni Muslims like Saddam. He served as foreign minister during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and was a frequent spokesman at that time.
Aziz last appeared in public March 19, when he held a news conference in Baghdad to quash rumors he had fled the Iraqi capital.
“I am carrying my pistol to confirm to you that we are ready to fight the aggressors,” Aziz said then. “American soldiers are nothing but mercenaries and they will be defeated.”
Although he was one of Saddam’s most loyal aides, Aziz, like most non-Tikritis, had virtually no power, U.S. officials have said. That could explain his longevity in Saddam’s inner circle — without an independent power base, he posed no threat.
In recent years Aziz did not have the international profile he had in the 1990-91 Gulf crisis when, as Iraqi foreign minister, he was virtually “Mr. Iraq” to the world’s media.
Saddam promoted him after the Gulf war to deputy prime minister, forcing him to relinquish the foreign ministry portfolio. Some believe this reshuffle had to do with Saddam’s not liking a Cabinet minister to become too well known.
Others point to the fact that Saddam’s son Odai did not like Aziz. Odai’s newspaper, Babil, often criticized foreign policy. In 1996, Aziz’s son Ziad was arrested for corruption in what Baghdad insiders saw as a turf battle between Ziad and Odai, who was equally known for graft.
However, Tariq Aziz retained weight within the government. He was Saddam’s deputy on the foreign affairs and media committees, in which positions he interpreted Saddam’s policies to the ministers concerned. He also conducted the government’s negotiations with the U.N. weapons inspectors.