Hussein's Former Envoy Gushes With Adulation on Witness Stand
By JOHN F. BURNS
Published: May 25, 2006
BAGHDAD, Iraq, May 24 — Nobody in Saddam Hussein's inner circle was more
tirelessly reverential toward him while he was in power than Tariq Aziz, who
is said to have been in the habit of saluting the telephone when Mr. Hussein
So it was little surprise on Wednesday when Mr. Aziz, 70, became the first
senior member of the old ruling elite to testify for Mr. Hussein at his
trial on charges of crimes against humanity. Nor did Mr. Aziz depart from
form: In an hour on the witness stand, Mr. Aziz, once Mr. Hussein's
principal international envoy and now an inmate in an American military
prison outside Baghdad, offered extenuating arguments for Mr. Hussein's
actions that kept his old boss smiling genially from the dock.
Mr. Hussein, 69, is charged with directing the persecution of the
townspeople of Dujail, 35 miles north of Baghdad, after a foiled
assassination attempt on him there in July 1982. The indictment says Mr.
Hussein's secret police arrested hundreds of men, women and children;
tortured dozens to death; banished more than 300 others to years of exile in
the desert; and ordered a vast acreage of date palm groves at Dujail plowed
Mr. Hussein is accused of signing execution orders for 148 people, including
32 who were under age 18.
On Wednesday, Mr. Aziz wore what appeared to be an open-necked hospital
gown, with a patient's plastic identification tag on his wrist, perhaps to
lend credence to his family's claims that he is too ill from an undisclosed
ailment to remain in prison, and to face what the court has said lies ahead
— a trial in which Mr. Aziz himself will be among the defendants for other
killings under Mr. Hussein. Though seemingly frail, Mr. Aziz offered as
energetic a commendation for Mr. Hussein as any he offered during his years
as a traveling emissary.
Mr. Hussein, Mr. Aziz said, had done no more than what any president would
have done after an attempt to kill him, and, as "a man of the law," had
acted with laudable restraint in the aftermath of the attack in Dujail, when
gunmen fired at his motorcade from a palm grove on the edge of the town. Mr.
Hussein was "a brave man, a generous man, who loved his people very much"
and had committed "no legal or humanitarian errors" over events at Dujail,
Mr. Aziz said.
"All over the world, even in Switzerland, if the president is subjected to
an assassination attempt, he is compelled by law to take the necessary
measures and arrest anyone who has any relationship with the attack," Mr.
Aziz said. If some of the Dujail actions, like razing the palm groves, were
not sanctioned by courts at the time, he said, that too, was normal, because
any order issued through the Baath Party's Revolutionary Command Council — a
rubber-stamp body that Mr. Hussein led, with Mr. Aziz among its members —
"was the law."
"It's that simple," Mr. Aziz said.
He also argued that punishing the people of Dujail was a legitimate response
to a series of assassination attempts against top officials after Mr.
Hussein took power in 1979, including a grenade attack on Mr. Aziz at
Mustansiriya University in Baghdad in April 1980. Mr. Aziz said that attack,
and the one at Dujail, were organized by an Iranian-backed Shiite religious
party, Dawa, which has provided two of the three Iraqi prime ministers since
the toppling of Mr. Hussein — Ibrahim al-Jaafari, head of the interim
government until last weekend, and Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who took office at
the head of a full-term government on Saturday.
"I was the victim of a criminal attack by the party that is in power right
now," Mr. Aziz said. "Why don't you put those people on trial? One of their
leaders was the prime minister until recently, and the other is prime
minister now." Similarly, he compared the razing of Dujail's palm groves to
the American decision to level palm trees on Baghdad's airport road, part of
a series of security measures that have sharply reduced roadside bombs and
suicide attacks on what was, for much of the past two years, one of Iraq's
most hazardous highways.
"The Americans say they did that to deny the terrorists cover, and it was
the same at Dujail," he said.
Under Mr. Hussein, Mr. Aziz, a cigar-smoking, whiskey-drinking Christian
from the Chaldean sect, used his posts as foreign minister and, later,
deputy prime minister, to justify the invasion of Kuwait, the efforts to
obscure Mr. Hussein's program to develop unconventional weapons, the mass
killings of Kurds and Shiites in the late 1980's and early 1990's and the
use of chemical weapons at the Kurdish town of Halabja, among other things.
Only weeks before the American-led invasion in 2003, he had an audience with
Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, one of dozens he had with world leaders.
Two weeks after the fall of Baghdad, Mr. Aziz surrendered to American troops
in his hometown, Mosul, in northern Iraq, apparently for his own safety in
the face of mobs hunting down officials of the ousted government. He was No.
43, and the eight of spades, on the Pentagon's "pack of cards" listing the
55 most wanted officials of Mr. Hussein's government. At an earlier stage of
the trial, American officials said Mr. Aziz had offered to testify against
Mr. Hussein on the condition that he be released early, a proposition the
Iraqi court and its American advisers say they eventually rejected.
In this second week of defense testimony at the trial, Mr. Aziz was followed
to the witness box by Abid Hamid Mahmud al-Tikriti, Mr. Hussein's distant
cousin and chief bodyguard, who appears in photographs of the Hussein era
standing alone behind Mr. Hussein, pistol strapped to his hip. Mr. Mahmud,
No. 4 on the Pentagon's list, gave an account of the assassination attempt
that differed little from the version that has been known in Iraq for years
— how the gunmen hit several vehicles in Mr. Hussein's motorcade, then
killed members of the security force pursuing them into the palm grove.
But Mr. Aziz held the court's attention with his encomiums to Mr. Hussein
and the three high-ranking associates standing trial with him — Barzan
Ibrahim al-Tikriti, the former chief of the Mukhabarat intelligence agency,
accused of overseeing the arrests and torture of the Dujail victims; Taha
Yassin Ramadan, a former vice president, charged with directing the razing
of 250,000 acres of palm groves and orchards; and Awad al-Bandar, former
chief judge of the Revolutionary Court, accused of presiding over a show
trial in the case and of passing death sentences on 46 men and boys who had
already died under torture.
Under questioning by the Raouf Abdel-Rahman, the chief judge in Mr.
Hussein's trial, Mr. Aziz admitted that he had no official or personal
involvement in the events at Dujail, and that he had never been there. But
he coupled his insistence on Mr. Hussein's tolerant nature and respect for
the law with the argument that he himself would have known about the
brutalities alleged by the prosecution if they had occurred, because of his
close relationship with the other three defendants.
Mr. Aziz said that he frequently dined with Mr. Ibrahim, the former
intelligence chief, at the time of the events in Dujail and their aftermath,
and that he had heard nothing from him about abuse of the townspeople. "He
was a friend of mine, as I have told you," Mr. Aziz said in an exchange with
Jaafar al-Moussawi, the chief prosecutor. "So if he was busy for a few days,
killing and slaughtering people in this case, he would have told me. Since
he didn't, it's clear, he cannot have been involved."