WASHINGTON — Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz turned himself in to U.S. forces in Baghdad on Thursday, handing the United States a top regime figure who could know whether Saddam Hussein and other members of his inner circle survived the war in Iraq, U.S. officials said Thursday.
Even so, U.S. officials said for the first time that other former Iraqi leaders arrested since Baghdad fell are staunchly defending the former regime and denying the existence of banned weapons when questioned by American interrogators.
Aziz had been close to Hussein for decades and was the public face of the regime for more than a decade, widely recognized for his thick-framed glasses, crop of white hair and superb English.
U.S. intelligence officials said Aziz could provide a wealth of information. Because of his ties to Hussein and the fact that he surrendered in Baghdad, officials said he may know Hussein's fate.
"He might well be in a position to know about some regime members who did or didn't survive various bombings in Baghdad," a U.S. official said. "He may not know the whereabouts of [unconventional weapons], but he probably does know about the existence of [banned weapons] programs."
Still, officials said that so far, none of the dozen or so senior Iraqi officials in custody has provided meaningful information.
"The senior officials who have been captured are sticking to the party line: 'We don't have any WMD [weapons of mass destruction]. This is a fine regime. We never did anything nasty in our lives,' " the U.S. official said. "They're all sticking to the story."
The denials add to the pressure on U.S. teams to find proof that Iraq had chemical or biological weapons -- an allegation that underpinned the Bush administration's case for invading Iraq.
After weeks of fruitless searches of suspected weapons sites by U.S.-led forces, senior administration officials have been trying to lower expectations and argue that the hunt could take a year or more.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld recently said that he does not expect U.S. teams to find evidence of illegal weapons materials and equipment unless Iraqi officials involved in the programs point the way.
U.S. officials had hoped they would get cooperation from Iraqis already in custody who would presumably know a great deal about illegal weapons programs, including Gen. Amir Saadi, Hussein's top scientific advisor.
But Saadi and others may have little incentive to cooperate because they are suspected of running the weapons programs, and furnishing evidence would only bolster war crimes cases against them.
"The people who are most likely to point you to where the WMD are hidden are not the top 55 guys," the official said, "but people below that level, physically involved in hiding it and who are not considered war criminals."
The official said one low-level Iraqi scientist has provided some cooperation, pointing U.S. military search teams to suspected sites. But he said that although the United States has found some precursor materials, "we have not found an actual chemical weapon."
Aziz was the eight of spades on the mug shot "playing cards" distributed to U.S. troops to help them identify regime leaders.
Iraq experts said Aziz is a significant catch, with deep and long-standing ties to Hussein. But they also said that although he clearly had Hussein's trust, his influence at times seemed limited.
"He's the highest ranking of the government inner circle caught," said Judith Yaphe, an instructor at National Defense University who was the CIA's top Iraq analyst during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
"He was one of the most important [regime figures] because he was the mouthpiece of the regime and a real loyalist," Yaphe said. "He carried out many policies. He was perfectly amenable to be Saddam's yes man."
There was some speculation that Aziz had defected in the weeks before the war began. But he later appeared before the press alongside other senior regime figures in Baghdad.
He was last heard from on March 24, several days after an airstrike reportedly targeted his home, warning that U.S. troops would be met with "bullets, not flowers," if they entered the Iraqi capital.
Aziz was born Mikhail Yuhanna in 1936 near the northern city of Mosul, later changing his name to sound more Arabic. He was the only Christian in Hussein's inner circle. Some thought his religious background was an important reason that Hussein trusted him, because Aziz could not develop a loyal following of his own in a nation dominated by Muslims.
His urbane manner and effectiveness as a speaker led Hussein to cast Aziz as the country's main diplomat.
Aziz met with President Reagan in the Oval Office in the 1980s and helped persuade the administration to assist Iraq in its war with Iran.
"He was an interpreter of the outside world for Saddam," said Pat Lang, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst and specialist on Iraq. "He didn't have independent authority, but he was Saddam's link to the outside world."