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The King Is Dead (Has Been for 46 Years) but Two Iraqis Hope: Long Live the King! (NY TIMES) By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN BAGHDAD, Iraq 01/29/05)Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/28/international/middleeast/28king.html NEW YORK TIMES NEW YORK TIMES Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
BAGHDAD, Iraq, Jan. 26 - Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein has had enough of the riches, the servants, the palaces and living like a king. Now, he says, it´s time to be one.

Mr. Hussein, a dapper 48-year-old former fund manager who was a first cousin of Iraq´s last king, Faisal II, and claims direct lineage to the Prophet Muhammad, has jumped into the Iraqi elections not just to win a seat in the national assembly but to reclaim the throne.

It is a Cinderella campaign, but Mr. Hussein is palpably building momentum, positioning himself and his Iraqi Constitutional Monarchy Party as the unifying force that could end Iraq´s bloodshed. He has built a network of supporters, from veterinarians in Baghdad to Basra sheiks in tents, and he now says even the men with masks are on his side.

"The insurgents have given us the green light," Mr. Hussein said. "We go anywhere we want."

But there is one little problem.

There is another man who would be king.

Not far away from Mr. Hussein´s palace in central Baghdad, with its chirping birds and trickling fountains, is a dim office with mustard- colored leather couches. It is here that Sharif Mamoul Abdul Rahman al-Nissan, a businessman who also claims to be a descendant of the prophet, has formed the rival Hashemi Iraqi Monarchy Party. His ideas are similar to Mr. Hussein´s, and his party´s symbol, a golden shield topped by a crown, is suspiciously reminiscent of Mr. Hussein´s, which is far better known.

"So our shields look similar," Mr. Nissan said, with a wave of the hand. "So what? We are two branches of the same tree."

Mr. Hussein does not want to be on the same tree. "I told the elections commission about this guy," said Mr. Hussein, who is known as Sharif Ali. "But I guess there´s nothing to be done."

The battle of the aspiring kings is one of the wackier match-ups in an increasingly surreal election, in which many candidates are secret, many parties are completely unknown and voters are talking more about whether they are going to get blown up on the way to the polls than whom they are going to vote for.

But the idea of some sort of limited monarchy, as in Britain or Spain, may be gaining traction. Iraqis are desperate for a leader who will draw the country together, and many older voters wax nostalgic about the years of the monarchy, from 1920 to 1958.

"Those were the magic days," said Suham Muhammad, a 64-year-old housewife. "We had work and security and peace. There were no secret jails. I remember seeing the queen ride through the streets in her chariot, with her white dresses."

Ms. Muhammad said she was going to vote for Mr. Hussein.

Some of the bigger political parties are also warming up to the idea of a king. "The monarchy is one of the solutions to the Iraqi situation," said Ahmed Rushdi, an official with the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni Arab party. "If the sharif will support us in advocating Islamic law," he said, referring to Mr. Hussein, "we will support him."

But there is opposition, too.

"I don´t think it´s acceptable," said Jawad al-Maliki, a senior official at the Dawa Islamic Party, one of the larger Shiite parties. "If you chose monarchy again, you´re going backward, not forward."

Mr. Hussein´s quest for the crown began in 1991, when he quit his job managing investment funds in London and joined a group of Iraqi opposition exiles who emerged after the Persian Gulf war of 1991. He attended meetings with the likes of Madeleine K. Albright, Colin L. Powell and Al Gore, and his Baghdad office is decorated with pictures to prove it.

In the prelude to the invasion in 2003, Mr. Hussein said, he pressed American officials to bring him in as soon as Saddam Hussein fell.

"It would have been the perfect transition from dictatorship to democracy," he said. "It would have been a way to unite the country around a figure whose history transcended sect and ethnicity."

Though American officials did something similar in the Afghan war, when they asked the 87-year-old king to return from exile in Italy to be a figurehead for the country, they turned down Mr. Hussein. Dan Senor, a former senior adviser with the American-led occupation, said in an e-mail message: "We explicitly told Ali bin al Hussein that the coalition took no position and it was an issue for the Iraqis alone to decide."

Mr. Hussein´s goal is to win enough votes in the election on Sunday to be taken seriously in the new government and secure a role in writing the new constitution, which is supposed to happen later this year. He hopes to put the monarchy issue to voters in a referendum.

His campaigning style is a mix of old ways and new, reminding people of his lineage from the Prophet Muhammad while distributing campaign literature on the Web. A Sunni Arab, Mr. Hussein is trying to reach all groups - Shias, Kurds, Christians and others.

"My goal is to be referee, not ruler," Mr. Hussein said.

Unlike many other campaigns, which are essentially being conducted in secret to protect politicians from assassination, Mr. Hussein is busy nearly every day, jumping into his purple Jeep Cherokee and going from rally to rally, speech to speech.

His views are moderate.

"I don´t believe there is a military solution right now in Iraq for either side, for the Americans or the insurgents," he said. "We must start with negotiations."

Mr. Hussein is descended from Iraq´s royal family, the Hashemites, on both sides. His mother, Princess Badia, was an aunt of Faisal II; his paternal grandfather was uncle to Faisal I. The Hashemites, one of the great Sunni Arab tribes, were leaders of the Arab resistance to the Ottoman Empire during World War I. After the war, the British picked one Hashemite king to rule Iraq and another to rule Jordan.

On July 14, 1958, Mr. Hussein was 2 years old and at home with his parents in a small palace not far from the king´s palace. They heard gunshots, the first moments of a coup. Soldiers surrounded the king´s palace and killed the royal family, including Faisal II. Mr. Hussein´s family hid with Iraqi commoners for several days before escaping to the Saudi Arabian Embassy and, eventually, leaving the country.

Mr. Hussein grew up in Beirut and attended college in Britain, where he settled.

His rival, Mr. Nissan, owns manufacturing companies and has spent his entire career in Baghdad. Mr. Nissan also uses the title sharif, which means a descendant of Muhammad´s grandson Hassan, and claims that his great-grandfather was a cousin of the sharif of Mecca, one of the most revered Arab rulers in the early 20th century.

Mr. Nissan said his support was strongest in Samarra, a troubled Sunni Arab stronghold that has been repeatedly overrun by insurgents. He is a little more coy about his ambitions to be king than Mr. Hussein is, saying the issue is not about him but his monarchy party.

"Let the people choose," Mr. Nissan said.

Mr. Nissan concedes that Mr. Hussein has a wider following but says that is because Mr. Hussein spent most of his life overseas.

"You see, we don´t get the spotlight because we´re from here and that makes us seem ordinary," said Mr. Nissan, 51. "But we´re the ones who have lived through it all. Shouldn´t that count for something?" Khalid W. Hassan and Mona Mahmoud contributed reporting for this article. (Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company 01/29/05)


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