Tariq Aziz, a top minister for Saddam Hussein who served as Iraq’s international spokesman for more than 20 years and was perhaps the government’s most recognizable figure after the longtime dictator, died June 5 at a hospital in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah. He was 79.

His death was confirmed by Yahya al-Nassiri, the governor of Dhi Qar province, of which Nasiriyah is the capital. He said Mr. Aziz was moved to a prison there a year and a half ago after initially being held in Baghdad.

Saadi al-Majid, a local health official, said Mr. Aziz was transferred from Nasiriyah prison to the city’s al-Hussein hospital Friday afternoon after suffering a heart attack and was pronounced dead a few minutes after being admitted. Mr. Aziz had been suffering from chronic heart problems and had made regular visits to the hospital, Majid said.

Mr. Aziz was sentenced to death for the persecution of Shiite Muslims after an abortive uprising at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. But, in 2010, Iraq’s then-president, Jalal Talabani, declined to sign the execution order.

“I sympathize with Tariq Aziz because he is an Iraqi Christian,” Talabani told a French television station. “Moreover, he is an old man who is over 70.”

Tariq Aziz, who was foreign minister of Iraq under Saddam Hussein, has died in prison, according to Iraqi officials. Here's a look back at his role in the Hussein administration and his downfall. (Reuters)

Apart from being implicated in the repression of Shiites, Mr. Aziz was convicted of three separate crimes, including his purported involvement in the execution of 42 Baghdad merchants, for which he received a 15-year sentence. The merchants were accused of raising food prices when Iraq was under sanctions imposed by the United Nations after the 1991 conflict.

With large horn-rimmed glasses, a gray mustache, silver hair and ever-present Cuban cigars, Mr. Aziz looked more like a college professor than the frontispiece of a brutal regime.

As foreign minister, he tried to present Hussein and his government in a more moderate light. In the 1980s, Mr. Aziz played a major role in reviving ties with the United States during Iraq’s long war with Iran, only to see the relationship obliterated after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, a regional U.S. ally.

During the run-up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Mr. Aziz tried to solicit help from Russia and China to have sanctions eased. He achieved modest success when Russia agreed to veto the U.N. Security Council resolution granting permission to invade Iraq.

Weeks before the 2003 invasion, Mr. Aziz visited Pope John Paul II and other leaders in Europe to seek peace. He tried to make the case that support for an American-led war against Iraq would be perceived by many Muslims around the world as an assault on their faith and could have terrible consequences.

“If other countries, especially here in Europe — the Christian countries — if they participate in such a war of aggression, it will be interpreted by the Arab and Muslim world as a crusade against the Arabs and against Islam,” he said at the time.

Mr. Aziz was one of a small circle of Hussein associates to survive in power since the 1968 revolution that led to the establishment of the regime, said Judith S. Yaphe, a research fellow and Iraq expert at the National Defense University.

“He survived because he was not a threat and was totally, totally loyal to Saddam,” Yaphe said.

Mr. Aziz traveled widely. Foreigners meeting him saw an urbane and relatively sophisticated politician, but his influence on policy was limited. “To be influential might have been dangerous,” Yaphe said. “Did Saddam listen to advice? Maybe he did. Tariq had skills that Saddam needed in terms of his connections to the outside world and his knowledge of the West.”

Mr. Aziz’s global presence and titles of deputy prime minister and foreign minister belied his minor role in Hussein’s inner circle. In the deck of cards featuring 55 most-wanted Iraqis, which the Pentagon gave U.S. troops before the invasion of Iraq, Mr. Aziz was the eight of spades, ranking 43rd on the list.

A Chaldean Christian by birth and a college graduate, he was an outsider in Hussein’s overwhelmingly Sunni tribal and poorly educated clique. In diplomatic settings, Mr. Aziz could come off as witty and charming, although he was an obstinate defender of his nation’s brutal policies.

He defended Iraq’s use of chemical weapons, invasion of Kuwait and repression of Shiites and minority Kurds. Under questioning by the U.N. Special Commission searching for Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in the 1990s, he vigorously denied that his country had biological and nuclear weapons.

During the tense buildup to the 1991 Gulf War, he predicted that the United States would be defeated in what he described as “a bloody conflict” in which “America will lose and America will be humiliated.”

After the war, Mr. Aziz said that President George H.W. Bush halted U.S. troops outside Baghdad because they had been destroyed on the battlefield. In fact, Bush was honoring the U.N. Security Council resolution and international agreements not to topple the Hussein regime.

Mr. Aziz was born Mikhail Yuhanna in a village outside Mosul, Iraq, on April 28, 1936, according to news accounts. He possibly changed his name to prove his Arabism, Yaphe said. His parents were Chaldean Christians, members of a sect of the Catholic Church.

As a child, Mr. Aziz spoke Aramaic, the tongue widely considered the language of Jesus. He grew up in Baghdad and studied English literature under British teachers at the University of Baghdad. Shortly after graduating, Mr. Aziz became a reporter for the newspaper Baghdad al-Jumhuriyah (the Republic). He also joined the Arab Socialist Baath Party. He became editor in chief of the newspaper in 1963, when the Baath Party seized power in Iraq.

When the party split and the government fell several months later, Mr. Aziz aligned himself with a rising faction led by Hussein. In 1968, when the Baathists returned to power, he became editor of al-Thawra (the Revolution), a party organ.

In the early 1970s, Mr. Aziz became minister of information, the government’s chief propagandist. Later that decade, he became a member of the Revolutionary Command Council, the party’s governing body. When Hussein became president of Iraq in 1979, he appointed Mr. Aziz deputy prime minister, a job he held until the government’s fall in 2003. Mr. Aziz was foreign minister from 1983 to 1991.

In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, which it claimed was keeping oil prices artificially low and harming Iraq’s economy. Iraq was trounced in the subsequent Gulf War.

After the war, Mr. Aziz tried to persuade the United Nations to lift tough sanctions. Before the 2003 invasion, he accused the United States of seeking Iraq’s oil and protecting Israel. Once again, he predicted mass U.S. casualties and said senior Iraqi officials would fight alongside citizens in the streets.

Two weeks after the invasion, Mr. Aziz surrendered to the United States. At his trial for the Shiite persecutions, his attorneys noted that he was out of the country on a diplomatic mission when the executions were carried out.

In 2010, Mr. Aziz told Britain’s Guardian newspaper that he tried to dissuade Hussein from invading Kuwait.

“I said to him this is going to lead to war with the U.S., and it is not in our interests to wage war against the U.S.,” he said. “But the decision was taken. I was the foreign minister of the country and I had to defend the country and do everything possible to explain our position. I stayed on the side of right.”

A complete list of survivors was not immediately reported.

Mustafa Salim in Baghdad contributed to this report.