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Jailed voice of Saddam dies in Iraqi hospital

| Friday, June 5, 2015, 5:09 p.m.
In this Thursday, Sept. 7, 2000, file photo, Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz speaks during the U.N. Millennium Summit at the United Nations.
In this Thursday, Sept. 7, 2000, file photo, Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz speaks during the U.N. Millennium Summit at the United Nations.

BAGHDAD — Tariq Aziz, the debonair Iraqi diplomat who made his name by staunchly defending Saddam Hussein to the world during three wars, and was sentenced to death as part of the regime that killed hundreds of thousands of its people, died in a hospital in southern Iraq, officials said. He was 79.

Aziz, who had been in custody in a prison in the south awaiting execution, died Friday afternoon when he was taken to the al-Hussein hospital in the city of Nasiriyah following a heart attack, according to the provincial governor, Yahya al-Nassiri.

Aziz, the highest-ranking Christian in Saddam's regime, was its international face for years. He was sentenced in 2010 to hang for persecuting members of the Shiite Muslim religious parties that dominate Iraq.

His wife, Violet, visited him in prison Thursday, their daughter Zeinab said in the Jordanian capital, Amman, where most of the family lives.

Her father had suffered several strokes that left him confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak during their parents' final meeting, she said.

“He didn't move. He couldn't talk. He didn't say a word to her. He just looked at her,” said Zeinab, 46, fighting back tears.

“It is so sad that he had to go this way,” she said, speaking outside the family's Amman home, where friends and relatives gathered. “So sad that he didn't see his grandchildren, so sad that he had to spend his last years alone, sick and alone, and in this very humiliating circumstance.”

“But I want people to remember what he did,” she added. “He really fought for his country, in his own way.”

The only Christian among Saddam's inner circle, Aziz's religion rescued him from the hangman's noose that was the fate of members of the top regime leadership.

When he was sentenced to death, the Vatican asked for mercy for him as a Christian. Iraq's president at the time, Jalal Talabani, refused to give the death sentence his required signature, citing Aziz's age and religion.

As bombs rained down on Baghdad during the U.S.-led 2003 invasion, Aziz said of American forces, “We will receive them with the best music they have ever heard and the best flowers that have ever grown in Iraq ... We don't have candy; we can only offer them bullets.”

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