A Mighty Fall

The wife of Tariq Aziz says he gave himself up in a "civilized" way. When American soldiers and CIA agents showed up at the Baghdad home of Iraq's former spokesman in April, the first question they asked was about the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein.

Aziz told them he hadn't seen the dictator for several weeks. Then the troops took Aziz off to captivity in a bare, stifling room at Camp Cropper, the U.S. internment camp at the Baghdad International Airport.

Now Aziz's family is outraged about the conditions of his imprisonment--and what they say is the more favorable treatment for the top Iraqi officials who are cooperating with U.S. forces by telling all they know about weapons programs and Saddam's possible hideouts. "The Americans told us when they took him that they will treat him well and give him extra good care and that he can call once a week or once every two weeks maximum," Aziz's wife, Violet, told NEWSWEEK in an exclusive interview. "And none of this happened."

Violet Aziz, along with her daughter, Zainab, and Aziz's sister, Amal, spoke to NEWSWEEK at their apartment in an upper-middle-class building in Amman, Jordan, currently home to the exiled families of many former regime figures. The three are all austerely dressed, well-spoken women, who clearly feel ill-used. And while few Americans are likely to share their outrage, their comments provide some insight into the fate of some of Saddam's erstwhile henchmen.

Of the 55 most-wanted Iraqi officials in the Pentagon's pack of cards, the U.S. Central Command lists 38 as being either captured or killed. While the dead famously include Saddam's sons, Uday and Qusay, most of the rest are in American custody--and many of them surrendered peaceably, often after negotiations with go-betweens. Most recently arrested: Taha Yasin Ramadan al-Jizrawi, the Iraqi vice president. In captivity, the former elite are not exactly happy campers. While they tend to be treated better than the other 5,000 Iraqi prisoners, many of whom are kept in tent camps and sleep on pallets on the ground, the conditions of their imprisonment are not what they thought their position and status would merit.

Aziz negotiated his surrender fairly early, and expected a lot better than he got, his family says. "We haven't spoken to him since April 24, it was a Thursday at 11:30 p.m.," Violet Aziz said recently. "We expected better since my husband gave himself up in such a civilized way, because he was sure nobody has anything against him."

For two decades, Aziz had been the urbane if querulous face of Iraq to the outside world, first as the country's foreign minister and, more recently, as deputy prime minister. A member of Iraq's Christian minority, he spoke English fluently enough to deliver fulsome tirades dripping with sarcasm. (Some 5 percent of Iraqis belong to a number of ancient Christian sects, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Nestorians for the most part. Many of them looked to Aziz as their guarantor under the regime, and, for the most part, they were well-treated so long as they kept a low profile.) "His job was pure diplomatic relations, and to serve his country because he is an Iraqi and he will always serve Iraq," says his wife.

When the Americans--dressed in their trademark black bullet-proof vests and carrying Uzis and high-tech communications gear--came to the Aziz home in Baghdad, Violet Aziz assumed they would take her husband in for questioning, hold him a while and then release him. Then they would all head off to a comfortable exile in Jordan. As it turned out, the family did not hear from him until almost two months later, when the Red Cross delivered a letter he wrote on June 14. "My husband never was involved in any crimes against the people or war crimes or weapons-making, and he doesn't even know where the money is," says his wife. "Everyone knows this. Tariq was always the voice of reason. Why are they keeping him?"

Aziz's family says he is being held in a simple room furnished with only a bed; there is no air conditioning. Violet read from his letter, addressed to his sister Amal and written in English and Arabic: "[It says,] 'I am in general OK health,'--did you notice 'general OK health,' meaning he is not doing too well." Amal chimed in: "My brother knew he was fighting a lost cause, but Iraq is his country and he is an Iraqi at the end of the day and is very loyal to his country. He was defending his country, not a specific person."

Under Article IV of the Geneva Conventions, which governs occupations by foreign military forces, detainees such as Tariq Aziz have to be held in their own country. So as far as anyone knows, none has been whisked off to Guantanamo Bay or elsewhere. They also have to be released once major hostilities cease, and many have argued the prisoners should have been freed once George W. Bush declared "major combat operations" over on May 1. But it's also clear that the conflict continues, and even the International Committee of the Red Cross agrees the United States can legally hold political detainees.

But for those high-profile detainees who cooperate, treatment is much more generous. A few of the most-wanted reportedly have even been released under house arrest, and many of them are able to regularly call home and get family visits. "My father is not accused of anything even by the Iraqis," says Zainab. "He is not accused of anything internally or externally. There are people who were extremist in the previous regime who are under house arrest and not in these God knows what rooms in what conditions."

"We heard others call their wives twice a week," says Zainab. "Maybe because they are cooperating, but with my father there is nothing to cooperate about. I sent him underwear and cigarettes, but when I wanted to send more, they said only once a month. Where are the human rights that the United States is always talking about?" Adds his sister Amal: "It's a shame how he is being treated. Abu Ziad [Aziz's nickname] is a clean, decent person."

On July 15, Aziz wrote Violet and as always, asked after each of his seven grandchildren by name. "I am OK and getting good medical care, but I miss you all and the grandchildren. Hugs and kisses." Then he added, "P.S. Please send me magazines and newspapers, cigarettes (a lot, preferably Marlboros), underwear and a disdash [the lightweight gownlike native dress for men]."

The women get emotional hearing his words read out. "Do the Americans think that they love their fathers, kids and grandchildren more than the Arabs do?" asks Zainab. "My father loved his grandchildren and they loved him in return. We are human and we have the right to worry about our father."

When the Americans took Baghdad, the homes of regime figures were among the first to be looted. The family says they watched Tariq Aziz's prized library, including many valuable and rare books, go up in smoke. The women's wedding dresses, their family pictures, "It's all gone," says Zainab. "Family pictures, our degrees, certificates, everything. Even our marriage certificate."

The family has contacted the Vatican for help--"the Vatican knows who Tariq Aziz is," says Violet--but to no avail. "The U.S. knows who Tariq Aziz is," adds Zainab. "Specifically, [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld. He was a close friend of my father. Every time in the past when my father would go to the U.S., he would drop by to see Rumsfeld. He and Rumsfeld were the ones to get back the relations with the U.S. and Iraq." But that was two decades ago, during the Iran-Iraq War when Washington strategically sided with Iraq. It's unlikely that Tariq Aziz will be cashing that chip in anytime soon.