Saddam Hussein deputy sentenced to death

As Saddam’s principal spokesman, the bespectacled Aziz – the only Christian in the now executed dictator’s inner circle – was a recognisable figure internationally whose rise was attributed to unswerving loyalty to his master.

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Iraq’s top court last year jailed both Aziz and Saddam henchman and cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid for 15 years for their role in the 1992 execution of 42 Baghdad wholesalers.

Aziz had earlier been acquitted in the first of four trials for alleged crimes against humanity.

His family, now in Jordan, has repeatedly called for his release from custody, saying the 74-year-old was in poor health suffering from heart and respiratory problems, high blood pressure and diabetes.

In September, his Amman-based son Ziad said the Iraqi government wanted Aziz to die in Baghdad’s Kadhmiyah jail and had shown no compassion for his declining health.

Named foreign minister in 1983 and then deputy premier in 1991, Aziz was believed to have wielded little real power of decision-making.

But he became one of the regime’s best-known figures abroad as his master’s voice who matched his US peers in debate.

Born in the northern town of Sinjar on April 28, 1936 Aziz was from a Chaldean Catholic family.

He changed his name from Michael Yuhanna to Tariq Aziz to allay any Arab nationalist hostility to his Christian background.

Aziz had known Saddam since the 1950s, but was kept outside the closed Sunni Muslim circle of the president’s fellow clansmen from the central town of Tikrit even as he rose to become the top Christian in the Baathist government.

Once omnipresent, haranguing the international media and instantly recognisable in his trademark thick glasses and neat uniform, Aziz turned himself over to US custody a month after the March 2003 invasion.

Critics of the US-led occupation claimed Aziz was held as a political prisoner to avenge his often eloquent and erudite verbal assaults on Washington and London.

Very little has been heard of Aziz during his time in custody. His daughters Zinab and Saja have been allowed to visit him and said they found him in poor health.

He was reported to have suffered two heart attacks, with Aref saying the second was caused by a three-day hunger strike to protest against his detention.

The image of an ailing old man is very different to his previous existence defending seemingly lost Saddam causes.

Instructed to explain the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 – when Saddam’s use of Western civilians as “human shields” sparked outrage – or Baghdad’s repeated standoffs with UN weapons inspectors through the 1990s, the genial Aziz always found the words that made world headlines.

After British and US air strikes on Baghdad in 1998, he laid into the international community, the Arab world and the “criminals” – then British prime minister Tony Blair and US president Bill Clinton.

In early 2003, Aziz embarked on a high-profile tour of European capitals in a failed bid to prevent the US-led invasion.

His strong command of English, learned at university, not only ensured that the anglophone media turned out to listen, but also gave him a platform to deliver fierce tongue-lashings guaranteed to make diplomats squirm.

With his defiant tone and ever-present Cuban cigar, Aziz gave the impression he would defend Saddam to the end.

Even after Saddam’s execution, Aziz took the stand in 2007 during the trial of three other leading regime members to insist that his longtime master was not guilty of crimes against humanity and had only been punishing would-be assassins.

He was referring to Saddam’s death sentence for ordering the deaths of 148 people following a 1982 assassination attempt against him.

Aziz was already in the command structure of the Baath party in 1963 in charge of propaganda, five years before the Baathists consolidated their grip on power.

He ran the party newspaper Ath-Thawra and then in the mid-1970s became information minister.

He survived an apparent assassination bid by grenade at Baghdad’s Mustansiriyah University in 1980 that killed several people and was blamed on the Shi’ite Dawa party – today led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Lifting of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ delayed

US President Barack Obama said Thursday that he believed being gay or transsexual was not a lifestyle choice but was biologically dictated before birth.

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As his administration is criticized by gay and lesbian rights groups over what they see as slow progress towards repealing a ban on gays serving openly in the military, Obama weighed in on sexuality at a youth town hall meeting.

“You know, I am not obviously — I don’t profess to be an expert. This is a layperson’s opinion,” Obama said.

“But I don’t think it’s a choice. I think that people are born with, you know, a certain makeup, and that we’re all children of God,” the president said, in answer to a question.

“We don’t make determinations about who we love. And that’s why I think that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is wrong.”

The president’s position is likely to anger some conservative, evangelical Christian groups, which argue homosexuality is a sin, and therefore involves choice.

He sought to delay the lifting of a ban on gays serving openly in the military, arguing that his review should be completed first, so the transition can be “orderly”.

Obama has long said he plans to scrap the controversial military policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which requires gay and lesbian service members to stay quiet about their sexuality or face being kicked out.

But Virginia Phillips, a federal judge in California, stole his thunder on Tuesday, ordering the government to immediately suspend the policy.

The Justice Department reacted on Thursday, saying it was applying for a stay that would suspend the legal order until an expected appeal can be heard.

Obama made it crystal clear, in a message on the micro-blogging site Twitter, that the legal manoeuvers did not mean he was altering his position.

“Anybody who wants to serve in our armed forces and make sacrifices on our behalf should be able to. DADT will end & it will end on my watch,” he promised.

Critics say the law, a 1993 compromise aimed at resolving a long-thorny issue, violates the rights of gay military personnel and has harmed US national security by forcing out some 14,000 qualified troops.

Obama has ordered a year-long review of the implications of ending the ban, which is due to be completed in December and which will help draw up new rules of military service.

Later, in a television interview with the US cable channels Black Entertainment Television, MTV and Country Music Television, the president spelled out his thinking.

“This is not a situation in which, with a stroke of a pen, I can simply end the policy. It has to be done in a way that is orderly, because we are involved in a war right now.

“This policy will end, and it will end on my watch. But I do have an obligation to make sure that I’m following some of the rules,” he said.

“I can’t simply ignore laws that are out there. I’ve got to work to make sure that they are changed.”

As the Obama administration weighed an appeal, the Pentagon said on Thursday it had issued guidance to troop commanders to obey the court order.

“The Department (of Defence) will abide by the terms in the court’s ruling, effective as of the time and date of the ruling,” said Colonel David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman.

Lapan said an email had been sent from the legal branch of each of the military services to legal advisers in the field informing them of Tuesday’s injunction.

In the run-up to crucial November mid-term elections, polls have shown overwhelming US public support for ending the policy, while Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have both backed lifting the ban.