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Family says Aziz surrendered after hiding at relative's house

Unclear what coalition plans to do with ex-Iraqi official

Unclear what coalition plans to do with ex-Iraqi official

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- For the past few days, Tariq Aziz had been organizing his handover to coalition forces to ensure the process would be dignified, his family told CNN's Nic Robertson.

U.S. Central Command announced Thursday that Aziz, a close adviser to deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and the face of the regime to the outside world, was under coalition control. He is one of the U.S. military's 55 most wanted members of the Iraqi regime.

Family members said they were told by coalition officials that the United States wanted Aziz to answer a number of questions, not necessarily go to jail. Before the start of the war, Aziz said he would rather die than be taken into U.S. custody.

It is not clear where Aziz is being held or what coalition forces plan to do with the former Iraqi deputy prime minister. The family indicated Aziz was still in Iraq.

Aziz, 67, was at a relative's house about three kilometers (2 miles) east of Baghdad's city center, before turning himself over to U.S. forces late Thursday, family members said. He had recently suffered two heart attacks, and family members said they were concerned about his health.

U.S. doctors made sure Aziz received proper medication and medical attention during the handover, the family said.

The Wall Street Journal, in its Friday edition, said the behind-the-scenes negotiations on Aziz's surrender included talks with an American citizen who is a friend of Aziz and his family.

According to the Journal, the American was involved in four satellite-telephone conversations with Aziz. The American also said U.S. officials have asked that he not disclose his identity, as he also is negotiating the surrender of other high-level Iraqis.

Aziz may have knowledge of Iraqi leaders' fate

Aziz -- described by one U.S. official as "pretty well wired" -- may have knowledge about the fate of top Iraqi leaders, including Saddam Hussein, a U.S. official told CNN National Security Correspondent David Ensor. While it is considered unlikely that he would know the location of weapons of mass destruction, he "may be able to confirm their existence," the official said.

Two other U.S. officials told CNN Senior White House Correspondent John King that Aziz may have information about Iraqi financial resources and complexes used by regime officials. The officials said it would likely be some time before any decision is made on Aziz's legal status.

Upon returning to the White House from a trip to Ohio, President Bush responded with a wave and thumbs up to reporters' queries about Aziz's surrender, but he made no comment. He had heard the news aboard Air Force One in a phone call from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

"His reaction is that he is very pleased," said a senior official who discussed the apprehension with the president shortly after the call. "But we don't know yet what it means. This is just unfolding, and we have yet to learn about what Tariq Aziz knows and doesn't know."

Before war: 'I would rather die' than become prisoner

Aziz was No. 43 on the list of the 55 most wanted Iraqis and was the eight of spades in the deck of cards being circulated by coalition troops. In an interview with a British TV network in January, Aziz remained defiant against the prospects of the United States toppling Saddam's regime.

"Do you expect me, after all my history as a militant and as one of the Iraqi leaders, to go to an American prison -- to go to Guantanamo? I would rather die," he told ITN. "We will fight to the last bullet."

Aziz was born Michael Yuhanna in 1936 in Mosul and later changed his name. In a rarity among the Iraqi hierarchy, he was a Christian, not a Muslim. His association with Saddam stretches back to the 1950s, when both were activists in the Baath Party, then banned.

Aziz, whose fluent English was useful in his position as an international spokesman for Iraq, became well known during the first Gulf War when he served as Iraq's foreign minister. As deputy prime minister, he supervised Iraqi foreign policy and was a member of Saddam Hussein's inner circle.

In the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, Aziz, a Chaldean Catholic, went to Rome to meet with Pope John Paul II, who opposed military action.

"The Holy Father and the Vatican and the leaders in God -- Muslims and Christians -- are trying their best to stop this aggression," he said at the time.

During the war, Aziz made some appearances, including one to squelch rumors that he had defected or been shot. His last appearance came on April 1, when LBC aired an interview with him that had been taped the day before.

Aziz's home in Baghdad was among those looted in the days following the city's liberation.

Aziz's apprehension came the day after four other top Iraqi officials were taken into custody, including three on the top 55 list.

-- CNN Pentagon Correspondent Chris Plante contributed to this report.

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