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A Little-Known Iraqi Royal Holds Court

Few believe Sharif Ali can refashion the nation as a kingdom. But he remains undaunted.

June 11, 2003|Azadeh Moaveni | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD -- To the colorful cast of characters aspiring to lead postwar Iraq -- mullahs, tribal chieftains, wealthy exiles and former generals -- add a would-be king.

On his first day back in his homeland Tuesday after 45 years in exile, Sharif Ali bin Hussein, the cousin of Iraq's last monarch, held court in a faded taupe mansion in northern Baghdad and pledged to help rebuild the country, preferably as a constitutional monarchy.

The monarchist group that Sharif Ali leads holds a seat on the political council that is working with the U.S. occupation authority to form an interim government, but few here believe that he stands any chance of refashioning Iraq as a kingdom.

As popular as the notion of a king may be among ordinary Iraqis -- many of whom are nostalgic for the amicable days of the monarchy that preceded more than three decades of brutal Baath Party rule -- Sharif Ali is largely unknown here. Moreover, he lacks clout with Washington.

Arriving relatively late after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, with scant credentials as an opposition figure, Sharif Ali may be hard-pressed to become a serious contender among the jockeying factions on Iraq's political landscape.

But at a news conference Tuesday that was attended by several hundred people, Sharif Ali was undaunted.

"Iraqis are asking for the return of the monarchy and the security they believe it can provide," he said, braving the June heat in a navy blue suit and Hermes tie, occasionally dabbing his brow with a spotless handkerchief.

Tribal leaders and clerics in traditional robes mingled on the veranda after an elaborate lunch, picking at sticky baklava and fanning themselves with fliers bearing Sharif Ali's smiling face and a family tree tracing his origins to Imam Ali, the prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law.

"He might end up with a recognizable role, like [Mohammad] Zaher Shah," said a senior Iraqi political figure, referring to the former Afghan king who helped unify that nation after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. "But he won't be remade as a king."

The trim, British-educated Sharif Ali, 46, has spent all but one of his years outside Iraq and speaks a distinctly nonnative Arabic. In the mid-1990s he interrupted his London-based investment banking career to begin opposing Hussein's regime and enjoys a substantial following among wealthy Iraqi emigres, who consider him down to earth and sincerely devoted to Iraq's future.

"He's not really into jet-setting or a lot of pomp," said Dafer Azmi, an Iraqi exile who accompanied Sharif Ali on his trip from London to Baghdad by chartered jet. "Businesspeople like me are interested in a stable political environment, and he's the only visible sign of stability around."

Sharif Ali's local supporters believe that he could become a national symbol who bridges Iraq's ethnic and religious divides. Although he is a Sunni, he is popular among Shiites, who make up the majority of Iraq's population.

Sharif Ali's backers point out that it is the monarchies in the Middle East -- such as Jordan, Morocco and Qatar -- that are carrying out democratic reforms and modernizing their economies.

"The kingdoms are meeting people's needs to live in peace and security," said Sheik Meshal Shalal, a tribal leader from the northern city of Mosul, as a bow-tied waiter served bitter coffee in tiny cups.

Many Iraqis from a variety of religious and class backgrounds say they would prefer a monarchy over a republic, especially given Iraq's recent history -- Iraq under Saddam Hussein was nominally a republic. The problem is that most of them have no memories of Sharif Ali.

"Thirty-six years of Baathist oppression has made us hate political parties and everyone affiliated with them," said Shaker Guiyed, a 65-year-old Shiite Muslim who recalls a happier, more secure life under King Faisal II, Sharif Ali's cousin, who was deposed in 1958. "America will never let Shiites rule Iraq, so a monarchy is the next-best thing."

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