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Iraq: Baghdad Dispatch -- Iraqis React To Aziz's Detention

The U.S. military has announced that coalition forces in Baghdad are holding former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz in custody and that he may provide information on the whereabouts of the country's toppled leader, Saddam Hussein. From Baghdad, RFE/RL correspondent Zamira Eshanova reports on how ordinary Iraqis have reacted to the news that Aziz is in U.S. custody.

Question: Do many Iraqis know that Tariq Aziz is in custody? How did they find out?

Eshanova: Everywhere we went, people know that Tariq Aziz was arrested, and they've learned it from Radio Sawa or BBC or some Arab news channel. And so despite the disruption of the telecommunication systems in Baghdad, news and rumors spread quite fast. So yes, a lot of people know this news.

Question: What does the ordinary Iraqi think of Tariq Aziz? Is he considered to be a diplomat and a foreign-policy specialist? Or is he simply considered a henchman of Saddam Hussein and the regime?

Eshanova: What I've learned and heard from ordinary Iraqis -- doctors, teachers, merchants, housewives -- is that Tariq Aziz is not considered by a majority of them as a bad guy. They know what his position was, what he was responsible for -- that for a long time he was the foreign minister of Iraq -- and they know that he is a Christian. But they say there is no hatred directed toward Tariq Aziz. At the same time, they know that this man was one of the top officials of the regime, one of the top servants of this regime. But they consider Tariq Aziz a soldier ruled by very powerful generals, and a very powerful ruler. And they believe that he and other [officials] who were intellectuals couldn't do much to serve Iraqis' interests, to serve ordinary people. At the same time there are some voices saying that he's a part of this regime and he should be punished now for whatever this regime has done to the Iraqi people.

Question: How do Iraqis evaluate U.S. efforts to arrest leading members of Saddam's regime? Do they think that the U.S. is doing a good job under difficult circumstances, or are they critical of the efforts?

Eshanova: They are absolutely not satisfied with what the U.S. is doing now with this regime, because they think, 'Look, they made this list, this special list of highly wanted officials of the regime and there are only 55 names, while this regime was served by thousands of loyal people and this list first of all should be much, much bigger and longer.' But at the same time, they say that so far the United States has arrested only small fish -- only low-profile officials. And so, where is Saddam? Where are all these guys? Where is the chief of secret police, where is the chief of the army? Where are all these evil men who were killing, torturing, humiliating the Iraqi people, stealing the country's wealth? Where have they gone? Why hasn't the United States arrested any of these big guys, including Saddam Hussein?

Question: Many Western officials are now hoping that these "small fishes" like Tariq Aziz will be able to help provide information leading to the whereabouts of Saddam and other top officials. Where do Iraqis think Saddam and other top members of the regime are now?

Eshanova: They believe that there is a kind of conspiracy and there is a kind of agreement between the United States and top officials of the Saddam regime -- including Saddam Hussein himself, as they believe that Saddam Hussein is maybe now hiding somewhere protected by U.S. guards. This is a widespread belief here in Baghdad that the United States is not doing a good job because Saddam was serving U.S. interests, that he was an agent for the United States and whatever bad things he has done during these years, he was encouraged by the United States.