CBSN

Iraqi Spy Chief Nabbed

U.S. soliders from the 173rd Airborne Brigade patrol the streets in the center of Mosul, northern Iraq, on Thursday, April, 24, 2003.
AP
U.S. officials on Friday captured a former Iraqi spy chief linked to the 1993 plot to kill former President Bush and interrogated deputy prime minister and top Saddam Hussein aide Tariq Aziz.

Farouk Hijazi, Iraq's ambassador to Tunisia and a former senior intelligence operative, was turned over to U.S. troops by Syria, reports CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin.

Although he was not among the top 55 most wanted officials, Hijazi, who also has served as Iraq's ambassador to Turkey, is considered a prize catch.

He allegedly met with Osama bin Laden in Kandahar, a region in southeastern Afghanistan where the al Qaeda had training camps, U.S. officials have said. It's not known what might have been discussed at the December 1998 meeting.

Iraqi officials denied Hijazi met with bin Laden.

He is "the biggest catch so far I would say," former CIA Director James Woolsey told CNN.

U.S. officials say they're optimistic even more wanted Iraqis will be captured in coming days.

Aziz, a former deputy prime minister and foreign minister under Saddam Hussein, was the 12th man on the American list of 55 most wanted Iraqis taken into custody. Aziz was No. 43 on the U.S. most-wanted list, the eight of spades in the military's card deck of top Iraqi leaders.

A spokesman at Central Command headquarters in Qatar, Lt. Herb Josey, said Aziz surrendered on Thursday. Josey gave no further details.

The capture of top Iraqi figures could prompt other wanted officials to turn themselves in, Pentagon officials said. Information from the others already in custody also could lead to more on the wanted list, the officials said.

The only Christian in Saddam's inner circle, Aziz served as foreign minister during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. With his flawless English, the silver-haired Aziz also frequently represented his government's views to Western media.

Although he was one of Saddam's most loyal aides, Aziz, like most who were not from Saddam's Tikriti clan, had virtually no power, U.S. officials have said. That could explain his longevity in Saddam's inner circle — without an independent power base, he posed no threat.

Saddam promoted him after the Gulf war to deputy prime minister, forcing him to relinquish the foreign ministry portfolio. Some believe this reshuffle had to do with Saddam's discomfort with Cabinet ministers who became too well known.

Saddam's son Odai did not like Aziz. In 1996, Aziz's son Ziad was arrested for corruption in what Baghdad insiders saw as a turf battle between Ziad and Odai, who was equally known for graft.

Ziad Aziz served about two years in prison for corruption before Saddam pardoned him. Tariq Aziz has two daughters and another son, named Saddam.

Despite his fluctuating relationship with Saddam, Tariq Aziz retained influence, if not power.

In early 1990, Saddam toyed with opening up his regime and introducing a new constitution that would grant limited freedoms. Aziz advised against this, saying it would be the beginning of the end of Baath party rule. Saddam listened and the reforms never transpired.

Born in 1936 near the northern city of Mosul, Aziz studied English literature at Baghdad College of Fine Arts and became a teacher and journalist. He joined the Baath Party in 1957, working closely with Saddam to overthrow the British-imposed monarchy.

Aziz changed his name from Mikhail Yuhanna. In Arabic, Tariq Aziz means "glorious past."

He was wounded in a 1980 assassination attempt by an Iranian-backed Islamic fundamentalist group named ad-Dawa Islami, the Islamic Call. Members of the group threw a grenade at him in downtown Baghdad, killing several people.

The attack was one of several that Saddam blamed on Iran, part of his justification for his expulsion of large numbers of Shiite Muslims and his September 1980 invasion of Iran.

Aziz was instrumental in restoring diplomatic relations with the United States in 1984 after a 17-year break. He had met in 1983 with Donald H. Rumsfeld, then a private envoy from President Reagan and now defense secretary. At the time, the United States backed Iraq as a buffer against Iran's Islamic extremism.

The plot on the life of the first President Bush came during his August 1993 visit to Kuwait. Kuwaiti authorities seized a car bomb and arrested 16 people in connection with the suspected plot. A U.S. investigation traced the alleged attempt to the highest levels of the Iraqi government.