(Reuters) - Through long years of conflict and crisis in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Tariq Aziz was his master’s voice to the outside world - an urbane, cigar-smoking diplomat who relayed Saddam’s tough and uncompromising stance to his enemies.
In the months leading up to the 199 1 Gulf War, when U.S.-led troops drove Iraqi occupation forces out of Kuwait, the silver-haired foreign minister took center stage, refusing to give ground in the face of growing international pressure on Baghdad.
In a last-ditch meeting with U.S. Secretary of State James Baker aimed at averting that war, Aziz pointedly declined to accept a letter from President George Bush addressed to Saddam, because of what he described as its humiliating tone.
Twelve years later, with U.S. forces once again gathered to wage war on Saddam - this time with the stated aim of overthrowing him - Aziz once again was defiant.
“For me, as well as for the courageous Iraqi leadership, we were born in Iraq and we will die in Iraq. Either as martyrs - which is a great honor - or naturally,” he said in Baghdad, wearing military uniform with a pistol strapped to his belt.
Saddam, captured by U.S. troops in December 2003, was hanged three years later. Aziz, who surrendered to the United States just two weeks after Saddam’s overthrow, was jailed for his role in executions as well as the forced displacement of Kurds, before being sentenced to death in 2010 over the persecution of Islamic parties under Saddam.
That sentence was not carried out and Aziz, who suffered a stroke in detention and frequently complained of ill health, died on Friday after a heart attack in the southern Dhi Qar governorate.
He was born in 1936 in the Christian village of Tal Keif, near Mosul in northern Iraq, and studied English literature at Baghdad University before pursuing a career in journalism.
His association with Saddam dated back to the 1950s when the two men were involved in the then-outlawed Baath party which sought to oust Iraq’s British-backed monarchy.
With Saddam’s backing, he became editor of the Baath party’s main newspaper, al-Thawra. His profile continued to grow as Saddam’s own grip over the country tightened.
After the overthrow of Iraq’s monarchy and a series of coups which saw the Baath party seize more and more power, Aziz became information minister in the 1970s.
When Saddam assumed the presidency in 1979 Aziz was appointed deputy prime minister, playing a frontline role in government for the next quarter century until Saddam’s toppling.
His long survival in Iraq’s brutal autocracy - where any hint of disloyalty could mean death even for Saddam’s most senior lieutenants - was attributed to his roots in a powerless minority which could never challenge the president.
A Chaldean Christian, he was outside Saddam’s tight-knit Sunni Muslim clan from the city of Tikrit, but his allegiance was rarely questioned. To avoid any doubt, he named his second son Saddam.
Aziz survived an assassination attempt by an Iranian-backed opposition group on the eve of Iraq’s 1980-88 war with Iran during which he helped win U.S. support for Baghdad against the Islamic Republic. At the same time he forged economic ties with the Soviet Union.
But his rise to international prominence was sealed in 1990, when Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait and he became the public face of Saddam’s unflinching international diplomacy.
Deploying excellent English and well-honed negotiating skills, he impressed opponents as well as supporters even if he failed to prevent war. “I must say I thought his style was very good,” Bush senior said after Aziz told the world why Iraq was defying international condemnation of the Kuwait invasion.
Following Iraq’s 1991 defeat, Aziz often led the Iraqi side in troubled and confrontational negotiations with United Nations weapons inspectors overseeing the dismantling of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
After 12 years of on-off inspections, a second President Bush sent U.S. forces to battle Saddam a final time, accusing him of rebuilding Iraq’s arsenal of banned weapons.
In March 2003, Aziz warned that invading Iraq would be no “picnic”. A decade later, after many thousands of U.S. and Iraqi deaths, his homeland in north Iraq is overrun by Islamic State militants and Iraq’s future as a state is under threat - apparently bearing out his pre-invasion warning.
“It is going to be a bloody war and it will take a long time,” Aziz said, days before U.S. troops poured into Iraq.
Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Louise Ireland