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)
NEW YORK TIMES
NEW YORK TIMES Articles-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
"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
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
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
Mr. Hussein grew up in Beirut and attended college in Britain, where
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)
Return to Top
MATERIAL REPRODUCED FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY