Even family is happy to see Aziz deposed

`He's very, very bad,' deputy premier's aunt says

April 21, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

QARAQOSH, Iraq - On her living room wall she has a picture of Tariq Aziz meeting Pope John Paul II, but on this Easter Sunday she had few kind words for her nephew.

"Let them arrest him," Selma Dawood said dismissively. "It's not important to me. What can I do with Tariq Aziz?"

The blunt, baritone-voiced 75-year-old widow was speaking of the man identified here as her sister's son. He was deputy prime minister in President Saddam Hussein's government and, to Americans, he was Iraq's voice to the outside world through two gulf wars.

Aziz, the portly, gray-haired senior aide who wore trademark thick, black-rimmed glasses, offered blistering critiques of the United States through both conflicts. Now, he and his boss are missing.

Aziz was the top Christian on Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council. Yesterday, his relatives and hundreds of thousands of other Christians, who make up nearly 4 percent of Iraq's population, celebrated Easter.

But Dawood, a striking woman with broad shoulders, a thick gray braid and a wizened face, offered few words of charity toward her nephew. It was unclear whether it was bad blood, crotchetiness or fear of arousing suspicion that fueled her attitude.

Asked whether her nephew had done anything to aid Christians, she tartly replied: "Zero. Zero. He's very, very bad." She added that he was part of a "criminal regime."

Aziz, who is about 66, played a pivotal role in thwarting efforts by United Nations weapons inspectors in the mid-1990s and lived in a villa on the Tigris River in Baghdad.

"Saddam is finished, and we are OK," his aunt proclaimed. "We are very happy and merciful to God and the Americans, our uncles.

"God bless America. God protect America."

U.S. special operations soldiers are patrolling this area, but they do not appear to be hunting for Aziz. U.S. commanders said they recently sent troops to the area to discourage looting and clashes between Kurds and Christians. Yesterday, the soldiers appeared relaxed. "So far, it's quiet," one of them said.

Surrounded by some of her 18 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, Dawood said she had lost contact with her relatives in Baghdad and had not seen her famous nephew since 1995. She was in Baghdad then, she said, and his driver picked her up for a family gathering.

"Just greetings," she said, dryly describing their conversation. "`How are you?' `Everything is OK.' He never asked if we needed anything."

She said Aziz was the son of a doctor who emigrated from Turkey - though some biographies say his father had a humbler profession - and of Dawood's sister, who grew up here. As a child, Aziz, his brother and his sister moved every two years as his father held different health posts, she said, but they spent time in the Mosul area before moving to Baghdad.

Aziz has two sons, Ziad and Saddam, and two daughters, Zaina and Mayisa, she said. All are adults who had been living in Baghdad with their families.

She and local residents said Aziz's wife stayed in this town during the first Persian Gulf war in 1991. But she said Aziz had not been in Qaraqosh for years.

This quiet farming town of 25,000 people is 99 percent Assyrian Christian, residents said. Local priests do not know its exact age but say it dates back thousands of years. It is part of a belt of Assyrian settlements in northern Iraq that date in some cases to the Assyrian Empire, which flourished from roughly 900 to 600 B.C. and had its capital near Mosul.

Most portraits of Hussein have been removed from the town, but one remains. On the outskirts, a mural depicts him on horseback slaying a dragon.

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