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Saddam Hussein's right-hand man dies before execution

Tariq Aziz wasn’t hanged because the Vatican asked for a pardon as he was Christian.

ONE OF SADDAM HUSSEIN’S top aides has died in an Iraqi hospital.

Tariq Aziz (79), a diplomat who made his name by staunchly defending Saddam to the world during three wars, was sentenced to death as part of the regime that killed hundreds of thousands of its own people.

The former deputy prime minister died this afternoon after he was taken to the al-Hussein hospital in the city of Nasiriyah, about 320 kilometers (200 miles) southeast of Baghdad, according to the provincial governor, Yahya al-Nassiri.

Aziz had been in custody in a prison in the south of the country, awaiting execution.

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

A Baghdad government official confirmed the death of Aziz. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.

Al-Nassiri, the governor of Dhi Qar province where Nasiriyah is the capital, said Aziz’s wife Violet had visited him on Thursday in prison and spent about an hour with him.

Aziz had suffered from diabetes and high blood pressure for a long time, and he was a chain smoker, the governor added. Local Iraqi authorities on Friday told the family it can take Aziz’s body from the hospital morgue.

Vatican pardon

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

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

Al-Nassiri said that Aziz was immediately taken to the hospital when the heart attack occurred. “The medical staff did their best to rescue him, but they failed. It is God’s will,” he added.

Even before he was sentenced, the ailing Aziz appeared to know that he would die in custody. He had had several strokes while in custody undergoing trial multiple times for various regime crimes.

“I have no future. I have no future,” Aziz told The Associated Press, looking frail and speaking with difficulty because of a recent stroke, in a jailhouse interview in September 2010. At that stage, he had been sentenced to more than two decades in prison.

“I’m sick and tired but I wish Iraq and Iraqis well,” he said.

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