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U.S. Bags Top Iraqi Official

Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, eight of spades cards Iraq
AP / CBS
Tariz Aziz, probably the most well known member of the Iraqi regime after Saddam Hussein, has turned himself in and is now in American custody.

Aziz contacted the U.S. through intermediaries a day or two ago to begin negotiating his surrender and gave himself up Thursday in Baghdad without a fight, reports CBS News Correspondent David Martin. Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke confirmed the capture of Aziz.

Although he is officially listed as only a Deputy Prime Minister, Aziz is probably the most important member of the regime picked up so far -- both for his symbolic value as the face which the Iraqi regime presented to the world and for what he might know.

Aziz, whose house was one of the first sites to be looted by Iraqis after the fall of Baghdad, is considered one of Saddam's longest serving and closest advisers and may well know what happened to the Iraqi dictator. Unlike other members of the inner circle, Saddam trusted Aziz because he was a Christian in an overwhelmingly Muslim country and therefore never a threat to seize power.

He was the chief negotiator with the U.N. over the terms of the weapons inspections and Iraq's most prominent spokesman, giving media tours of presidential palaces and assuring reporters Saddam had nothing to hide.

"We have no problem showing guests those places. They can look at them," he once said.

Officials doubt Aziz can point them to the exact locations where weapons of mass destruction might be hidden, but are confident he knows about the master plan to prevent the weapons inspectors from finding any trace of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

According to Martin, Aziz is also a man who may know what really happened to Saddam.

On the U.S. list of the 55 most-wanted members of the former government, he was No. 43.

He sometimes presented the Iraqi case against accusations by the United States and the United Nations. He served as foreign minister during the 1991 Gulf War and was a frequent spokesman at that time.

Although he was one of Saddam's most loyal aides, Aziz, like most who were not members of the Tikriti clan, had virtually no power, U.S. officials say.

Born in 1936 in 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 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 Saddam blamed on Iran, part of his justification for the 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 Rumsfeld, then a private envoy from President Ronald Reagan and now defense secretary. At the time, the United States backed Iraq as a buffer against Iran's Islamic extremism.

The United States broke off diplomatic relations with Saddam's government for good after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, which led to the Gulf War. Aziz was a frequent spokesman for Saddam during that war, too, contending Iraq's invasion of its smaller neighbor was justified.