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Aziz the 'eight of spades'

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Tariq Aziz, the close adviser of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, is in the custody of U.S. forces, despite his claims that he would rather die than be a U.S. prisoner of war.

Aziz was perhaps the Iraqi official most recognized by westerners, with his white hair, glasses and articulate statements in fluent English.

The only Christian in the top hierarchy of Baghdad, Aziz was also a dyed-in-the-wool member of the ruling Baath party.

"We are not the kind that will surrender to them (coalition forces) just to live a wretched life for two or three years," 67-year-old Aziz told Britain's ITN news network in late January.

"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 said.

Aziz was born Michael Yuhanna in 1936 in Mosul and later changed his name to Tariq Aziz.

He studied English at Baghdad University and worked for a while as a journalist in Iraq.

His association with Saddam stretches back to the 1950s, when both were activists in the then-banned Baath party.

Aziz 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'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 public appearances, including one to squelch rumors that he had defected or been shot. His last appearance came on April 1, when the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. aired an interview with him that had been taped the day before.

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.

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

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