Abdul-Rahman Aref

Former president of Iraq
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The Independent Online

Abdul-Rahman Aref, army officer and politician: born Baghdad 1916; President of Iraq 1966-68; married (two sons, three daughters); died Amman, Jordan 24 August 2007.

During the early hours of 17 July 1968, five shells were fired outside the Iraqi presidential palace in Baghdad, but Abdul-Rahman Aref thought he was dreaming and went back to sleep. As dawn broke, however, the phone rang and he was informed that he was no longer president of Iraq.

Aref was taken by surprise by the swift execution of the Baath coup, which had been organised by Maj-Gen Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr and his co-plotters, the Presidential Guard commander Sadoun Ghidan and the intelligence chief Abdul Razzaq al-Nayef. Only a few days earlier, rumours of a plot had reached Aref, who had questioned the plotters and been reassured when they swore their loyalty on the Koran.

Aref, a career army officer who had participated in coups himself, preferred exile to a bloodier fate and was allowed to leave Iraq to live in London. He was luckier than a previous Prime Minister, General Abdul Karim Qasim, who had been ousted by Baathists, aided by Abdul-Rahman Aref and his younger brother Abdul-Salam, in a coup that claimed 5,000 lives in February 1963, with Abdul-Salam subsequently being installed as head of government. Qasim's bullet-riddled body was displayed on television on 9 February 1963 when Saddam Hussein, then leading a Baath assassination squad, lifted Qasim's head by the hair to expose his bloodied face. Aref, then the Commander of Faisal Armoured Regiment, had earlier participated in Qasim's bloody coup of 1958 during which King Faisal II and the majority of the Hashemite royal family were exterminated in an orgy of mutilation and killing.

Born in Baghdad in 1916 to a middle-class Sunni family, Abdul-Rahman Aref attended local schools before enrolling in the Iraq Military Academy in 1934. He showed little ambition after his graduation in 1938, and was soon outranked by his brother Abdul-Salam, who was four years his junior. The younger Aref had volunteered to lead an Iraqi battalion against Israel in its 1948 War of Independence, or the "Palestine war", as it is known to Arabs. That war ignited widespread anti-Semitism and a mass exodus of Iraqi Jews, which was encouraged by the pro-British monarchy as many Jews were Communist party members. It also fostered a growth of Arab nationalism among Palestine-promoted army officers like General Qasim. Emulating Col Gamal Abdel Nasser's Free Officers coup in Egypt, Qasim recruited both Arab nationalists like the Arefs and Communists as he plotted his coup of 1958.

Qasim, however, was seen by many as a Soviet puppet. In 1960, under the influence of the Iraqi Communist party, he invited Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela to a conference, thus forming the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec). The following year he tried to annex Kuwait – a move thwarted when Britain co-operated with Colonel Nasser and the late King Hussein of Jordan and sent Royal Marines in support. Such moves isolated Qasim, both internationally and regionally, and he was ousted by the Baathists in February 1963. Abdul-Salam Aref was installed as Prime Minister, and Aref senior as the Chief of Staff of the army. Nine months later, Aref backed his younger brother in suppressing and ousting Baathist elements from the National Guard and the Government.

Abdul-Salam Aref had become president seeking confederation with Egypt and Syria, but he aroused Arab nationalists' suspicion when he called for co-existence with the traditionally oppressed Kurds. Nonetheless, his presidency survived several coup attempts.

As army chief, Abdul-Rahman Aref headed a 1964 military mission to Moscow, where he signed the first agreement on Soviet military aid to Iraq, encouraged by Nasser, who exerted great influence on the military regimes in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Algeria, and Sudan.

On 16 April 1966 Abdul-Salam Aref was killed in a still-unsolved helicopter crash in Basra. Nasser blocked the Iraqi Supreme Defence Council (ISDC) and cabinet choice of Abdul-Rahman al-Bazzaz to succeed as Prime Minister. The next day, Egypt's ambassador, Amine Howaidie, waited at Baghdad airport for Abdul-Rahman Aref – who was returning from Moscow – informed him that he was the new president, and drove him to a joint cabinet/ISDC meeting which was still discussing other candidates.

On a couple of occasions, Aref would turn up in Cairo complaining of a hostile coup, only to be "restored" after a brief telephone exchange between Colonel Nasser's office and the Egyptian embassy in Baghdad.

Although he aspired to create Uma Arabiyah (a Pan-Arab nation), Aref lacked strategy, political cunning and charisma. In response to Nasser's 1967 defeat in the Six Day War, Aref marched Iraqi troops to Jordan, only to march them back again without any impact whatsoever. He was an indecisive, shallow and naive politician, and his weak rule was marred by lawlessness, corruption and political gangs, such as Saddam's. Because of this, western leaders unwisely welcomed the Baathists' rule as a period of stability.

After a brief stay in London, Aref moved in exile to Turkey, until Saddam let him return to Iraq in 1988, unfreezing his army pension. He went to live in Jordan shortly after the fall of Saddam's regime in 2001, living on a $1,000 monthly allowance from the Iraqi Governing Council, which also footed his medical bills.

Adel Darwish