The decision by Iraq's high tribunal to pass a death sentence on Tariq Aziz, once the international face of dictator Saddam Hussein's regime, over “the persecution of Islamic parties”, has the feel of retribution about it. After all, this sentence follows from the fifteen year sentence meted out to Aziz last year for his part in the killings of dozens of merchants in 1992 and a further seven years for his role in the forced displacement of Kurds from northern Iraq during Saddam's rule – quite enough to ensure that he would never leave jail.
Aziz is a Chaldean Christian, who along with the Assyrian Christians, have ironically become largely un-reported collateral damage from the war. Being the only Christian in a secular Ba’athist dictatorship was a factor apparently exploited by Saddam, with veiled threats being made periodically to Aziz’s family. Which is not to excuse Aziz for “following orders”. That hasn’t been a defence since the Nuremburg Trials, but it may explain why the ‘Andrei Gromyko’ of Iraqi politics stayed even when it was obvious to him, if not Saddam, that America and Britain were deadly serious about invading.
I may have been the last Western journalist to have interviewed Aziz in the cavernous, echoing halls of the old Foreign Ministry in Baghdad, literally weeks before the cruise missiles of ‘Shock and Awe’ cascaded into the city. Aziz was sitting in a large armchair, Iraqi flags to his left and right puffing on an extra large cigar. He told me that “I have met your Mr Heath and Mrs Thatcher, but not your Mr Blair”.
“Please tell Mr Blair that we have no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq”, said Aziz. “Please tell him that he is welcome to come here, or send anyone who wishes to see for themselves”. I wasn’t sure just how serious Aziz was with his offer – although having spent time with former head of the UNSCOM weapons inspections team, Scott Ritter, I was pretty sure that Aziz was telling the truth about WMD. So I did pass the message on to Tony Blair, who looked at me rather strangely.
Could it be then that the death sentence is partly an insurance against any future Iraqi Government showing clemency? Tariq Aziz is old and unwell, but he has the ‘Mother of Stories’ to tell. Throughout the 1980s when Saddam was seen as an invaluable bulwark against the Iranian Ayatollahs, a succession of Western politicians and businessmen played homage at the Court of Tariq Aziz. Donald Rumsfeld was even pictured watching Iraqi rockets being fired on the Fawr Peninsula. Perhaps Aziz, who could tell the whole story of Western involvement in Iraq, before, during and after the war, simply has to be got rid of.
Which is why the British Government probably won’t appeal for clemency, even though it should.