Rocco Buttiglione, Italy's minister for Europe, has said he is ready to go to Baghdad to testify as a character witness in the trial of Saddam Hussein's former right-hand man, Tariq Aziz.
As a senior Christian Democrat and friend of Pope John Paul II, Buttiglione is unlikely to have agreed without the Vatican's approval.
His offer again focuses attention on the Roman Catholic hierarchy's controversially sympathetic attitude towards Aziz, who was baptized into a church of Christians native to Mesopotamia, the Chaldean Uniat church, which is in communion with Rome. Last year Buttiglione was forced to withdraw as Italy's nominee for the European commission over his alleged views on homosexuality. Though he would not go to Baghdad in his capacity as minister, it creates a problem for Silvio Berlusconi, whose government stood four-square behind the Bush administration's policy of regime change in Iraq.
Aziz, 69, deputy prime minister and foreign minister until the US-led invasion, figured as the eight of spades in the pack handed out to US soldiers to help them identify fugitive leaders, and was arrested in April 2003. He now faces trial on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He is accused of taking part in bloody purges of the ruling Baath party in the 1970s and 1980s. He argues that his role was exclusively diplomatic, and that he bears no responsibility for internal abuses by the regime.
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