Inside File: Monarchists tout a royal solution for Iraq's ills

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The Independent Online
IT CAN sometimes be difficult to unravel the complex process by which governments and their advisers adopt this or that policy initiative on any variety of international issues. They sometimes appear to have come from nowhere and to have lain in wait for the relevant crisis to arrive. The process is usually the opposite; one man's brainstorm may be another man's joke. A favourite tactic among diplomatic strategists is to send up trial 'balloons' and to see if they fly or die.

One such balloon is hovering just above the ground at the moment: it involves a movement to put a king back on the throne of Iraq. Monarchies are being touted by pretenders from Brazil to Albania (although Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia seems to have quietened down since even he had to concede the break-up of his country was irrevocable). The Iraqi monarchist movement is progressing a bit more discreetly; the pretender and his backers are biding their time.

The would-be future king, Sharif Ali Bin al-Hussein, was born in Baghdad in 1956, the son of Princess Badia and cousin of Faisal II, the Hashemite King of Iraq. When Sharif Ali was two, pan-Arabist officers led a revolution which overthrew the pro-British monarchy. Tanks surrounded the royal palace in Baghdad, King Faisal and members of his court were shot dead, the regent's body was dismembered and dragged through the city's streets by the Baghdad mob. Sharif Ali and his family escaped by taking refuge in the Saudi embassy and then went into exile.

In the light of those events, it may seem remarkable that anyone should think Iraq a natural habitat for a monarch - and that the monarchists' manifesto should speak of 'the golden era Iraq enjoyed during the constitutional monarchy and which Iraqis still reminisce about'. But with fresh reports of unrest in Baghdad, the question of who should succeed President Saddam Hussein, were he finally to be removed from power, has become a no-holds-barred game.

The Iraqi National Council, the coalition of Iraqi Shia Muslim, Sunni Muslim and Kurdish opposition groups, has proved hopelessly divided. The proponents of a restoration of the monarchy argue that Iraq, as a fragmented society, requires a neutral figurehead to pull the various factions together while remaining acceptable to the Sunni powerbase and army.

Sharif Ali, now 36 and living in London, is Sunni, untainted and carefully-spoken, with a degree in agricultural economics and a past in banking. When his possible role was first mooted last year, most Iraqi opposition figures dismissed him with cries of 'Who's ever heard of him?'

Until, that is, the idea of a monarchy for Iraq was suddenly unleashed by a senior British diplomat on an unsuspecting audience at Wilton Park, a Foreign Office think-tank, last December. Wilton Park is a Sussex weekend retreat where mandarins, academics and experts gather to air their views privately on intractable subjects. Although what goes on there does not reflect the views of Her Majesty's Government, it most definitely falls within the category of balloon-flying. As reports of this balloon emerged, the Arab press began piecemeal to report on the issue and Sharif Ali eventually made the cover of a Paris- based Arabic magazine. Last month, visiting Iraqi opposition leaders acknowledged his existence with a lunch and a dinner.

That the British, whether individually or governmentally, should be in the business of restoring the monarchy to Iraq has its own peculiar irony. The first King Faisal - son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca - was enthroned by the British in 1921 as a reward for having fought alongside Lawrence of Arabia in the Arab revolt against the Ottomans and as a consolation prize when the French ousted him from his brief spell as King of Syria.

None of this is to say that there will be a royal procession to Baghdad in the near future. A coup to topple President Saddam is needed first. The Foreign Office remains guarded about the idea, citing reservations by Saudi Arabia. The Saudis in turn have a problem with the prospect of another Hashemite in Iraq.

Not only are the Hashemites their old rivals for control of the Arabian peninsula; behind Sharif Ali they also suspect the hand of a better-known Hashemite, King Hussein of Jordan, whom they accuse of siding with President Saddam after the invasion of Kuwait.