15 JUNE 2015


The death of former Iraq Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister under Saddam Hussein, Tariq Aziz, prompted a controversial reaction in the Arab world about the way it was handled by the current Iraqi government.

After a prolonged illness in jail, without receiving adequate medical or personal attention, his official death awaited an official Iraqi government announcement. Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi reportedly refused to allow the body to be transported to Jordan for his family to bury, except if they promised not to have a public funeral. That attitude reflected not only incompetence and lack of sensitive awareness of human feelings, but it also indicated the partisan mentality that drove Iraq and its neighbors into the current mess.

When U.S. President George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003. Mr. Aziz opted to surrender to U.S. troops. Perhaps he presumed that U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would certainly recognize the name and the precise role, as Mr. Aziz had been a main channel with the U.S. government at varied levels. Mr. Rumsfeld happened to have been a special envoy to Baghdad for U.S, President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Being one of the few senior Iraqi officials fluent in English, Mr. Aziz was not only a connection with the International Media, but also a main player in discreet contact. He started his career teaching English and as opportunities widened, so did his role.

Born within a Baghdad suburb into a Chaldean Christian Catholic family as Michael Yuhanna, he sought to follow in the footsteps of Michael Aflaq, a Greek Orthodox from Damascus who, upon returning from Paris, launched the Arab "Ba'ath (Renaissance) Party". Becoming an active member in the Iraqi branch, Mr. Yuhanna changed his name to Tariq Aziz and played a pivotal role to the point of becoming the editor of its party newspaper. Saddam Hussein at the time was yet to appear on the political stage, having made his party credentials through participating in an attempt to assassinate Iraqi leader Abd al-Karim Qasim. Rising ruthlessly to power, Mr. Hussein saw in the party's newspaper editor a helpful confidant who, because of his background, could not aspire for the highest office. As Iraq's leader, Mr. Hussein could count on Mr. Aziz to convey messages, receive signals, delve into confidential missions loyally without posing any political threat.

With a new Iraqi regime in 2003, when U.S. envoys entrusted the government to a mainly Shiite faction, a deck of cards listing wanted former officials did not include Mr. Aziz' name, but he was kept in jail despite many high-level mediations on his behalf, including a special intervention by the Vatican.

Several reports indicated that he was being pressured to "spill the beans" about his master's secrets but he refused. Attempts to embarrass him publicly included showing him being dragged in pajamas with a background of another photo of earlier years in an elegant suit holding a Cuban cigar. His wife was allowed to see him once in a while as she did the day before his passing away in early June.

While Tariq Aziz or Michael Yuhanna was an obvious part of Saddam Hussein's brutal regime, Arab tradition holds treating the dead with adequate respect. Allowing his family to hold a funeral in Jordan was the least that Prime Minister Abadi could have done to allow for a gracious ceremony. Regrettably, there seems to be a problem of sectarian obsession, which is holding back Iraq from playing its usually central role in Arab affairs. It is the same separatist sectarian attitude which perpetrates more conflicts, offering ammunitions to subsidized fighters, threatening the security, sovereignty and unity of Iraq.