BAGHDAD - IRAQ'S high tribunal on Tuesday passed a death sentence on Tareq Aziz, once the international face of dictator Saddam Hussein's government, over the persecution of Islamic parties, the court said.

The death sentence was the first to be handed down to Aziz, who was well known in foreign capitals and at the United Nations before Saddam's downfall. He rose to prominence at the time of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the 1991 Gulf War, when he was foreign minister.

'The court today issued the death sentence on Tareq Aziz and four others for committing crimes against humanity. The charge of elimination of religious parties was classified as crimes against humanity,' Judge Mohammed Abdul-Sahib, a spokesman of the Iraqi High Tribunal, told Reuters. 'The nature of the crimes is wilful killing, torture and the enforced disappearance of persons.'

Last year, Aziz was sentenced to 15 years in prison for his part in the killings of dozens of merchants in 1992 and to a further seven years for his role in the forced displacement of Kurds from northern Iraq during Saddam's rule. He surrendered to invading you.S. forces in April 2003 but was handed over to Iraqi prison authorities this year.

In August he accused US President Barack Obama in a jailhouse interview with Britain's Guardian newspaper of 'leaving Iraq to the wolves' because of US plans to withdraw. Aziz's Amman-based lawyer, Badie Arif, said the decision was politically motivated.

The Vatican urged Iraqi authorities not to carry out the death sentence against Aziz, a Christian. This, the Vatican spokesman said in a statement, would help reconciliation, peace and justice. The Vatican did not rule out the possibility of making a humanitarian intervention on behalf of Aziz, but said this would be done through diplomatic channels, the spokesman added.

Tareq Aziz gets death