Gunmen stole the body of Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein's former second in command, from Baghdad's international airport on Thursday, Iraqi sources have confirmed to VICE News.
Aziz died in an Iraqi prison last Friday at age 79, reportedly from a heart attack. Fearful that a grave in Iraq would be desecrated, he reportedly requested to be buried in Jordan, and a Royal Jordanian Airlines flight was scheduled to transport his remains to the capital Amman on Thursday night. Prior to the flight, however, armed men clad in black clothing absconded with the body and escaped in a convoy of three cars, according to a member of Iraq's Parliament who spoke with VICE News on the condition of anonymity.
A source in the Iraqi police force, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed to VICE News that government forces were searching for three cars that were identified by airport workers following the incident. The official said that the cars passed numerous checkpoints without being stopped by security forces.
In the hours after the morbid heist, helicopters were reportedly seen hovering over the Shula and Amil districts of Baghdad. The areas are strongholds of the Shia militias that have been employed in Iraq's fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS).
The Iraqi government did not immediately respond to VICE News' requests for comment on the incident. Officials at Royal Jordanian Airlines confirmed to several news outlets that the flight bound for Amman departed without Aziz's body.
Aziz, who was a member of Iraq's Chaldean Catholic minority, was for decades one of the most powerful members of Iraq's Baath party, and served as the country's deputy prime minister from 1979 until 2003, when he surrendered to invading US forces. Garrulous and fluent in English, Aziz was also Iraq's foreign minister from 1983 to 1991, and was well known among diplomats.
In the run up to the American invasion, Aziz pleaded the Iraqi government's case before the international community. Appearing at the UN in 2002, he called the invasion of Iraq "inevitable" and said the US was not planning "regime change," but "region change."
At the time of his death, Aziz was imprisoned in the southern city of Nasiriyah awaiting a death sentence that was handed down in 2010.
The Associated Press reported that Aziz's wife Violet was present at the Baghdad airport when his body was taken.
The member of Iraq's Parliament who spoke to VICE News said the black clothing worn by the gunmen was similar to that used by members of Iraq's counterterrorism service, which was founded by former president Nouri al-Malaki, to whom many reportedly remain loyal.
The role of former Baath party members in the rise of IS has been widely documented in recent months. Izzat Ibrahim al Douri, another Saddam Hussein confidant and the former vice-chairman of Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council, later became a key figure in the insurgency. Al Douri was reportedly killed in April, but a speech purportedly recorded by the ginger-mustachioed commander emerged recently, raising the possibility that he is still alive.