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Euro Catholic politician to back Saddam's 'right-hand man'

Rocco Buttiglione, Italy's minister for Europe and a leading member of the Catholic movement Communion and Liberation, has said he is willing to go to Baghdad and give character testimony on behalf of Iraq's former deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Tariq Aziz.

"The man I've known was worried for peace, willing to explore all possibilities to avert war and prevent his country from having innocent victims," Mr Buttiglione told La Repubblica newspaper. "If my testimony, my telling things I've seen or heard, can be useful, I'm glad to give it."

Mr Aziz, a Chaldean-rite Catholic, was Saddam Hussein's right-hand man from 1979 until 2003 when the US-led invasion toppled the Iraqi Government. He is accused of taking a leading role in the bloody purges of the Ba'ath Party in the 1970s and 1980s. But he has also been defended as someone who tried in vain to prevent the two Iraqi wars with the West. Mr Aziz came to Italy just weeks before his country was invaded in 2003 to meet Vatican officials and pray at the tomb of St Francis in Assisi. During the visit he defended Saddam as "the father for his people, who trust in him" and said the rest of the world should trust him, too.

The London Tablet reported at the weekend that some commentators have speculated that Mr Buttiglione's testimony on behalf of the former Iraqi official could embarrass the Italian Government, which solidly backed the US invasion.

"His [Mr Aziz's] lawyers called me, and I said 'yes'," Mr Buttiglione told La Repubblica. But he has indicated he would not testify in his capacity as Italy's Minister for Europe.

Mr Aziz, 68, was the face of Iraq to the West under Saddam's regime. His Christianity was unusual among senior Iraqi officials, most of whom were linked to the president's Tikriti clan. Mr Aziz surrendered to the Americans when Baghdad fell in 2003.

Earlier this month, he was interrogated in Baghdad by representatives of a UN panel investigating corruption in Iraq's oil-for-food programme, his lawyer told AFP. The news agency reported that Mr Aziz is believed to be ready to name names in a scandal that now threatens the UN chief Kofi Annan, several international figures, and companies in France, Russia and other countries.

Buttiglione to back Saddam's 'right-hand man' (The Tablet 12/3/05)

Tariq Aziz's wife appeals to Pope (CathNews 3/9/03)
Baghdad bishop defends captured Aziz (CathNews 28/4/03)
Pope urges Aziz to push for Iraqi commitment to disarm (17/2/03)

14 Mar 2005