Baghdad, April 25: On an October night last year, Tariq Aziz led a reporter from his spacious office in the council of ministers building down to the lobby of the vast, colonnaded edifice that lay at the heart of the Republican Palace presidential compound.
Iraq’s principal spokesman to the world was in his element, puffing on a Havana cigar, showing off the acres of marble and the gilded chandeliers, dismissive of the threat of war with the US. If America invaded Iraq, he said, “we will fight, and we will win”, and American soldiers by the thousands would return home in body bags.
But what if he were wrong, the reporter asked, and six months hence General Tommy R. Franks were to walk into the same marbled lobby, looking for a headquarters for the American forces occupying Iraq'
Aziz waved his cigar airily. “You tell General Franks,” he said, “that by the time he comes in here he’ll be chasing shadows.”
Yesterday, almost exactly six months after that exchange, Aziz gave himself up to US forces in Baghdad, apparently without a fight. The struggle to the last Iraqi bullet that he spoke of in the October interview never materialised.
By his reference to shadows, Aziz, 66, appeared to foreshadow at least one of the truths about the war in Iraq, that the country’s top leaders would vanish before US troops could seize them, and would become the targets of a huge manhunt.
US intelligence officials said that if Aziz cooperated, he might be able to provide a wealth of information about the Iraqi government, including what happened to Saddam Hussein.
But just how big a catch Aziz is for the US is debatable. In official listings of the Iraqi leadership, he usually appeared at number four or five on the Revolutionary Command Council.
The fact that the US listed Aziz, a Chaldean Christian from Mosul in northern Iraq, only as number 43 on its list of the 55 most wanted of Saddam’s aides reflected something that many Iraqis felt about Aziz: He carried less weight in the inner councils than his ranking suggested.
In the end, Aziz’s value to Saddam appeared to lie in the former journalist’s flawless English and his quick mastery of almost any issue involving Iraq’s relations with the world.