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Iraq: Former Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz Faces Death Penalty

Former Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz testifies for the defense during Saddam Hussein's trial in May 2006 (epa) Tariq Aziz, who served as foreign minister and deputy prime minister under Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, is due to go on trial at the Iraqi High Tribunal in Baghdad.

Aziz, who was the most visible public face of the regime, could face the death penalty if convicted of ordering the 1992 executions of 42 rice merchants. The merchants were accused by Hussein's government of increasing prices for essential goods at a time when Iraq was under United Nations sanctions for its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Yahia Said, an Iraq expert with the nonprofit Revenue Watch Institute, says Aziz was different from other figures in the regime in that he had an extraordinary ability to adapt and survive.

"He has been one of the few leading figures in the Ba'ath Party who remained engaged in a couple of levels of politics over many decades," Said says. "Many of his peers got out or got executed or fired or removed from their posts, and he remained a loyal supporter of Saddam Hussein."

Aziz played an important diplomatic role in the run-up to the first Gulf War when he served as foreign minister, exhibiting faultless English, strong nerves, and negotiating skills. He used those skills to represent Iraq at high-level diplomatic meetings, justifying Hussein's policies -- including the invasion of Kuwait.

Surrendered In 2003

Aziz survived the first Gulf War, but he did not escape after the U.S.-led overthrow of the regime in 2003. Aziz was No. 43 on the U.S. most-wanted list of Iraqi officials. He gave himself up to U.S. troops in April 2003, just two weeks after Hussein's rule ended.

Aziz, a Chaldean Catholic, was the only Christian in Hussein's inner circle and also the most visible public face of the regime. His presence in Hussein's government was often held up as evidence of the regime's religious tolerance. Said says that fact is neither a plus nor a minus, since the regime was based not on religion but on loyalty to a dictator.

"He was a Christian and only one of a few Christians [in the government], but that is not [important]," Said says. "There were also Kurds and Shi'ites in Saddam's court. He was a loyal supporter of Saddam Hussein and of the regime."

Besides Aziz, other defendants in this trial include Hussein's half-brothers Watban Ibrahim al-Hasan, who was interior minister when the executions took place, and Sab'awi Ibrahim al-Hasan, a former top security official. A former trade minister and Central Bank governor will also face the tribunal.

Presiding over the trial will be judge Ra'uf Abd al-Rahman, who sentenced Hussein to death in May 2006 for his role in the killing of Shi'ite Muslims in Al-Dujayl in retaliation for an assassination attempt in 1982.

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