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Tariq Aziz, the man who became the public face of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein's regime, has died in custody 12 years after surrendering as Baghdad fell to invading U.S. troops, an Iraqi government official has confirmed. Aziz was 79.

The Associated Press reports the former foreign minister and deputy prime minister "died on Friday afternoon after he was taken to the al-Hussein hospital in the city of Nasiriyah, about 200 miles southeast of Baghdad, according to provincial governor Yahya al-Nassiri."

Aziz surrendered in April 2003 and was sentenced to death by the country's Supreme Court. However, as the AP notes:

"Aziz's religion rescued him from the hangman's noose that was the fate of other members of the top regime leadership."After he was sentenced to death, the Vatican asked for mercy for him as a Christian. Iraq's president at the time, Jalal Talabani, then refused to give the death sentence his required signature, citing Aziz's age and religion."

But his religion limited his influence in the Sunni Muslim-dominated government, the BBC says, adding "when Baghdad fell, his lack of influence was reflected in his lowly ranking as the eight of spades in the US military's famous 'deck of cards' used to identify the most-wanted players in Saddam's regime."

Aziz first came to international prominence during the first Gulf War in 1991 as a staunch defender of the regime's actions. His signature black-rimmed glasses and the military uniform he often wore, combined with his command of English, made him the most recognizable figure in the regime after Saddam himself.

Aziz and Hussein reportedly became acquainted in the 1950s when they were both activists for the then-banned Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party.

The BBC adds:

"He frequently represented Iraq on the international stage, speaking fluent English and giving a monstrous regime an urbane, often charming face. And like Saddam, he was often seen puffing on fat Cuban cigars."When Iraq found itself in dock, as it did after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990, it invariably fell to Tariq Aziz to explain Saddam's actions to an exasperated world. He did it doggedly, often infuriatingly, for decades."

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