Iraqi deputy denies defection attempt
Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister and the only member of Saddam's inner circle to profess a Christian faith, made a dramatic appearance before television cameras in Baghdad last night to quash rumours that he had been assassinated in an attempt to flee the country.
"I am carrying my pistol to confirm to you that we are ready to fight the aggressors," said Mr Aziz, who was dressed in military uniform. "American soldiers are nothing but mercenaries and they will be defeated."
Last month the Deputy Prime Minister, who comes from a catholic tradition, met with the Pope at the Vatican to discuss how Iraq could co-operate with weapons inspectors.
The defection of Mr Aziz, would have been the first fruit of a psychological campaign waged by the United States on the ruling elite in Baghdad.
Although the US has been previously reluctant to pursue strategies to stir up dissent against Saddam Hussein from within his own ranks, in the final run-up to an invasion, Washington has been striving to trigger defections as well as to nurture disloyalty among President Saddam's forces.
The effort peaked at the weekend, when the US State Department said it had compiled a list of a dozen top figures in the Iraqi regime who had their last opportunity to leave the country or face certain prosecution for war crimes.
The US has been cajoling military commanders as well as regular Iraqi soldiers, partly by airdropping millions of leaflets inside Iraq, to turn against their President.