THE BLOG

The Truth Teller

06/06/2015 03:03 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2016
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The last time I saw Tariq Aziz in person, it was early September, 2002. We were sitting across from each other in the lounge of a posh South African hotel. He was waiting for a meeting with the South African Deputy Foreign Minister, Aziz Pahad. I was trying to convince him that my plan to travel to Baghdad and address the Iraqi Parliament about the need to allow UN weapons inspectors to return to work was not an early symptom of dementia on my part. For nearly seven years, from 1991 until 1998, I had been the nemesis of the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister and the Iraqi government, leading UN inspection teams on an often contentious and confrontational game of cat and mouse in a search for proscribed weapons of mass destruction. During that time, Tariq Aziz often gave international press conferences where he accused the teams I led of using "commando tactics", and called me an agent of the CIA. He wasn't too far off base - my teams made use of site exploitation techniques taught by American military personnel, and I liaised extensively with the CIA and the intelligence services of numerous supporting nations (including Israel) when preparing for an inspection.

The hand-in-glove relationship between the UN weapons inspectors and the intelligence services of nations whose policy toward Iraq leaned more toward regime change than weapons disposal was a major factor in the Iraqi government decision to stop cooperating with UN inspectors. The inspection teams were ordered to withdraw by the United States in December 1998, just prior to the commencement of an extensive bombing ostensibly targeting weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capability we know today did not exist at that time. I was now asking Tariq Aziz to entertain the return of inspectors in an effort to forestall an even greater commitment of American military might.

"This is an old story, Mr. Ritter," Tariq Aziz told me, after lighting one of the ubiquitous oversized Cohiba cigars that had become his trademark. "We don't need you to retell it to us. We don't need you to try and save us - we don't need saving."

"That may very well be true," I replied. "But to be honest, I don't give a damn about you or the Iraqi people. If you want to engage in policies that lead to your destruction, that is your business. But as a former Marine Corps officer, I can't stand by idly while Marines fight and die in a war that can, and should, be prevented. I'm not doing this to save Iraqi lives - I'm doing it to save the lives of Marines, to save the lives of all the Americans who would die in such a war."

Tariq Aziz was wearing a business suit, not the crisp green military uniform I was accustomed seeing him in during my previous forays into Iraq. He took a long drag from his Cohiba, and blew the smoke out, his eyes narrowing as he contemplated my words. His aides approached him, signaling that it was time for his meeting. "I respect you, Mr. Ritter, and I respect your motives. I will contact the appropriate authorities in Iraq, and you will be welcome in Baghdad." We stood, and he extended his hand. "Is there anything else you need?"

I shook his hand, and then gestured to his cigar. "I'll take one of those, if you don't mind. I'll smoke it when war has been averted."

Tariq Aziz laughed, and reached into his coat pocket, withdrawing a Cohiba. "I hope you will be able to enjoy this soon," he said, before being ushered away.
I never did get to smoke that cigar.

Tariq Aziz was ostensibly in South Africa to attend the Earth Summit and meet with the UN Secretary General and other world leaders in an effort to resolve the issue of Iraq's WMD programs. "Everybody in the world should know that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq," he told CNN, and every other major media outlet, repeating the same claims he had made over the years. But there was another reason, one that he kept secret from the world. Shortly after his meeting with Mr. Pahad, Tariq Aziz was whisked away to a hospital, where a noted South African cardiologist performed a procedure called percutaneous coronary intervention, where a mesh stent was inserted in an artery leading from his heart. Tariq Aziz had a long history of heart disease, and on June 5, 2015 he finally succumbed to its ravages, dying of a heart attack while imprisoned in Iraq. He was 79 years old.

My experiences with Tariq Aziz solely centered on the subject of inspections and WMD. After the invasion and occupation of Iraq by a US-led coalition in 2003, Tariq Aziz surrendered to US soldiers and was placed under arrest. In 2003 he was sentenced to death by an Iraqi tribunal for his role in the execution of 42 Iraqi merchants accused of black market profiteering while Iraq labored under international sanctions. I have no insight or knowledge of his guilt or innocence in that matter - I judge him solely on the basis of my work as an inspector.

During the first four years I was in Iraq, Tariq Aziz was just a name and a face I saw on television, or read about in the newspaper or minutes of meetings held between him and my boss, the Swedish head of the UN inspection regime, Rolf Ekéus. While at the time I vehemently opposed his conclusions that Iraq was free of WMD, some of his arguments resonated. "The United States," he said in early 1992, "has said it would not lift sanctions until the Iraqi regime was changed. If this was the case, why should Iraq cooperate with the [inspectors]? If the [Security Council] resolutions were implemented in a fair manner and sanctions eased, Iraq would cooperate. If Iraq got nothing for cooperation, no purpose would be served. There must be reciprocity."

Tariq Aziz would be frustrated in this regard. Inspections continued. In July 1996 I finally got to meet Tariq Aziz in person. After several days of trying to gain access to a facility near what was at the time called Saddam International Airport, only to be blocked by armed members of Saddam Hussein's Presidential security forces, a negotiated settlement was reached where the team would be escorted in by senior Iraqi officials. The site, which U-2 surveillance photographs showed to be involved in what we believed was an evacuation of sensitive documents during an earlier inspection effort, turned out to be a bodyguard unit for the Iraqi President. Inside, waiting for us, was none other than Tariq Aziz himself, cigar firmly clenched in his teeth, a scowl on his face. "You see," he told the inspectors, "no weapons. Nothing."

It was a theme he continued through the years. In August 1998, in what was my last meeting with Tariq Aziz as a weapons inspector, he lambasted the lack of progress after more than seven years of inspections. "It is your job to report the truth to the Security Council," he told Richard Butler, the Australian diplomat who took over from Rolf Ekéus in the summer of 1997. "The truth is that Iraq has no proscribed weapons or capabilities in any areas within the mandate of the Special Commission...your duty is to take the direct political responsibility and report the truth."

Often derided as a mouthpiece of the Iraqi regime, Tariq Aziz was an intelligent, articulate man who, as it turned out, was telling the truth the whole time.