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Waiting to be king of Iraq

THE MAN who would be king of Iraq lives in an impeccable five-bedroom flat in West London, which is crammed full of family memories in the form of sepia photographs of his ancestors. The effect can be quite dazzling, like stepping into a shop specialising in silver photo-frames.

These mementoes are the nearest Sharif Ali Bin al-Hussein has come to his native Baghdad since he was two. He is now 38. 'I have only vague memories really, childhood memories, from that time', when his cousin Faisal II, the last King of Iraq, was shot dead by pan-Arabist officers in the gardens of the Royal Palace in Baghdad. The subsequent atrocities constituted one of the bloodiest revolutions in the history of the region. The family of Sharif Ali sought refuge in the Saudi embassy, fled to lead a peripatetic existence in various European capitals, ended up in exile in Beirut and left for London during the civil war in the 1970s.

The movement for a restoration of the monarchy surfaced in London last year as a way of bringing the various factions of Iraq together for the day Saddam Hussein is overthrown. Over the past six months, as the exiled opposition to President Saddam's rule has proved increasingly fragmented, Sharif Ali and his supporters have been 'coming out'.

Sharif Ali has a degree in development economics from Essex University. His interests are history and sport (he is a keen tennis player and windsurfer); he drives a BMW and is a member of one of London's most exclusive dining clubs. He does not drink or smoke; nor does his wife, Lina, a Shia of a noble family from Kerbala. His children attend a private English school and receive Arabic tuition at home.

Humility, neutrality and faultless manners are his stock in trade. He is raising his public profile now, he says, because of 'public demand'. This year he will quicken the monarchist pace by visiting Arab capitals. He hopes to beam radio and television speeches into Iraq.

How long will it take until he is on the throne? 'Anywhere from tomorrow to five years. It's a difficult one to call. A traditional coup is out of the question. Saddam has had 25 years to prepare for that day. The military will be the instrument of removal. But we need a culmination of a broadly based effort. The role I would accept is that of a constitutional monarch. I would be the guardian of the constitution.' Yet he 'wouldn't shirk' from playing a more active political role at first.

Would his leadership be inspired by that of any other monarch? 'It's not that monarchs are better than other statesmen, so I probably wouldn't pick on a monarch as inspiration. I'd probably pick on a head of state.' Which one? 'It's a difficult one to call. De Gaulle, I guess.'

Sharif Ali would probably not take up residence where the last king lived and died. The Rihab Palace was turned into a prison and torture chamber, known as the Qasr el-Nyhayiatt (Palace of the End).

For the time being he is keeping his powder dry. During the photography session, he displayed good humour and I thanked him for being patient. The reply: 'I have to be.'

(Photograph omitted)