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What Will Tariq Tell?

Former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, number 43 on a U.S. list of the 55 most-wanted Iraqis, is now in American custody. The high-profile catch is expected to provide Washington with vital information.

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The public face of Iraq: Tariq Aziz

After Saddam Hussein, his is the face and voice most associated with Iraq. Although he is said to have wielded little real power, Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz is known by most Westerners as the outspoken voice of his brutal master.

According to news reports, Aziz appears to have turned himself in to U.S. forces in Baghdad, despite having said prior to the war that he would "rather die" than "go with the Americans to Guatanamo."

The importance of Aziz for the Americans is potentially immense. It is hoped that he will provide information on both the whereabouts of other Iraqi leaders, as well as sensitive clues on the presence of suspected unconventional weapons programs, if these indeed exist. The U.S. has said that after the war it plans to bring all captured Iraqi officials to trial.

Selling a despot

In his years as deputy prime minister, Tariq Hanna Aziz's job was to convince other nations of the good intentions of Saddam Hussein's regime -- not easy when your leader is known as one of the world's greatest despots. Yet he did so, with unwavering loyalty and a defiant bravura style that often grabbed headlines.

Whether it was explaining Iraq's invasion of Iran in 1980, the invasion of Kuwait a decade later, or Baghdad's failure to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors, Aziz delivered his messages to the big guns of the press in flawless English, immaculately dressed in his trademark tortoiseshell glasses and military uniform. His comments, along with fierce tongue lashings aimed at international leaders, earned him mistrust in diplomatic circles -- or at best, a coolly polite reception.

Appointed foreign minister in 1983 and largely credited with securing Western support for Iraq against Iran, notably from France, Aziz is nonetheless believed to have wielded little real decision-making power.

Former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, while still in office, described Aziz as a "go between... who cannot make decisions on his own."

Loyal to Saddam

Aziz was the sole Christian in the Iraqi leadership, and was kept outside Saddam's closed circle of Sunni Muslim cronies from Takrit. Oddly in Iraq, a country where freedom of expression is otherwise brutally suppressed, having a key politician who was not Islamic posed no problem. Saddam Hussein's interest lay above all in absolute loyalty.

Loyalty was no doubt the key to longevity for Aziz. The veteran diplomat with the defiant tone and ever-present cigar has known Saddam Hussein since the 1950s. He is one of the few long-term senior survivors of the ruthless regime who was not related to Saddam -- even trusted friends were known to disappear overnight as a result of an ill-advised statement.

Born in 1936 in the northern Iraqi town Mosul, Aziz is the son of a civil servant. He joined the Baath Party -- then a left wing pan-Arab movement -- at the young age of 14. When the Baath Party split in 1968 into national groups, Aziz -- then a philosophy student in Baghdad -- stayed with the Iraqi organization. At that time, he became acquainted with the young law student Saddam Hussein.

Career path

Aziz began his career as a journalist. In the 1960s he edited illegal party propaganda. During this "underground" time, he gave up his Christian name, Michail Zuhunna, in favor of the religiously more neutral name of Tariq Aziz.

His career took off after the Baath party seized power in 1968. In 1969, he ran the party paper Ath-Thawra. As a commentator, he spoke out against threats to the regime. In 1976, for instance, he noted that there was no place for a Communist Party in Iraq. Several days later, 19 Communists were executed.

In 1974, he chose the right side during Saddam Hussein's putsch against Hassan al-Bakr, and was rewarded for it. Since 1979 he has served alternately as foreign minister and deputy prime minister, sometimes filling both offices at the same time.