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 called.
Abid Hamid Mahmud, Saddam Hussein's distant cousin and chief bodyguard, took the stand after Tariq Aziz, the former foreign minister.
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 under.
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.