The man who would be king of Iraq

After 45 years in exile, Sherif Ali calls for the creation of a constitutional monarchy.

By , Staff Writer of The Christian Science Monitor

BAGHDAD -Two weeks ago, a man who had spent only the first two years of his life in Iraq came back to Baghdad with a plan for life after Baath.

Iraq should be ruled by a constitutional monarchy, says Sherif Ali bin Hussein - and he, as the chosen prince of the Hashemite royal family, should be the one to steer the country toward stability.

After 45 years of exile in Beirut and London, Sherif Ali has returned to Iraq as head of the Constitutional Monarchy Movement. Rather than offering to rule reluctantly, the investment banker is making a pitch to put himself on a throne that vanished nearly a half-century ago.

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"The majority of Iraqis believe that it would be the best system for Iraq, because it would be a neutral umbrella," saysSherif Ali in an interview. "It would be an institution that would be apart from the rough and tumble."

Reinstalling an Iraqi monarchy deposed in a violent 1958 coup - the body of his cousin, King Faisal II, was dragged through the streets - is not an idea that Iraq's remodelers in Washington and London appear keen to support. But the movement could gather momentum - and might even complicate matters for L. Paul Bremer, the chief US civilian administrator in Iraq.

Sherif Ali is diplomatically critical of Mr. Bremer's approach to turning over power to an Iraqi administration. With the rise in violence against coalition troops, the US and British may be hard-pressed to ignore Sherif Ali's and others' calls to speed the political process. "I'd like him to be clearer about the timetable and the steps involved," says Sherif Ali, who wears a tailored gray suit, black dress shoes, and a tie despite the drowning heat.

The sherif - a title for members of the royal family - said when he arrived here that the US-led forces in Iraq should plan to stay for only a matter of months.

"What needs to be done is to say, 'We do have a program to rapidly move toward elections.' The problem people have is that it's open-ended," says Sherif Ali.

But Bremer and other coalition officials argue that Iraq is not yet ripe for elections. Bremer says in the next month he will appoint a political council, then convene a constitutional convention, and then bring its final draft to the Iraqi people in a referendum. Only then will elections be called.

Sherif Ali insists that most Iraqis would choose to be ruled once again by a monarchy to restore security and unite an Iraq splintered into a patchwork of ethnic and religious groups.

"What we propose is a government of technocrats. We don't need politicians to reestablish the electric supply," says Sherif Ali, sitting with some close aides - including an older brother - in a sprawling Baghdad mansion that serves as his headquarters. "We need a healing process," he says, "and if we had [a leader] from a single constituency, that would create tension, because how would we placate those who weren't part of that position?"

Sherif Ali, who talks the talk of a thoughtful, 21st-century monarch, says Iraq needs a system that is, "open, liberal, modern, and just." A return to monarchy isn't reactionary, he says. "We need to create institutions that are independently powerful," he says, mentioning the media and lobbying groups. "Why democracies in the Western world are powerful is that civil institutions are more powerful than the government, which is weak."

From tribal sheikhs to working-class taxi drivers who lingered at Sherif Ali's homecoming party, many here describe him as modest and bright. Posters with his picture, which bears a likeness to his late cousin King Hussein of Jordan hail Sherif Ali as the "The Hope of Iraq."

"What we need is to liberate Iraqi from all this chaos," says Hassan Abdul Amir, a kickboxer who volunteered for Sherif Ali's security detail. "The monarchy will provide equality for all."

Sherif Ali, whose father served as an economics minister under the last king, says it "was in hindsight extremely successful."

But the vast majority of Iraq's subjects led disenfranchised lives, says Charles Tripp, a political scientist at the University of London. "One thing that makes people say nice things to him is a feeling of nostalgia for life before Saddam," says Mr. Tripp in a phone interview. "Most Iraqis weren't even born then, so their knowledge of what happened under the monarchy is quite small. In fact, it was quite ghastly in terms of social status, economic opportunity, and living conditions for most," he says.

The movement's chances of success, Tripp says, are low. "I don't see any group putting aside their differences and saying, 'that's what we need.'"

Western officials seem distant, thus far, toward the prince. Some of the formerly exiled parties have been cooperative. But restoring the monarchy is bound to have opponents, not just among antiroyalists but among Shiites - about 60 percent of Iraqis - and Kurds - another 20 percent.

The Hashemites are a Sunni monarchy created by Britain at the end of World War I from among the nobility of Mecca, and Iraq was carved out of the Ottoman Empire on the premise of the Sunni elites ruling the majority Shiites. Many Kurds oppose reinstating royalty because it seems incompatible with the decentralized state they want.

None of this worries Sherif Ali. As a direct descendant of Imam Ali, the revered Shiite martyr, he says, Shiites view him as a fitting ruler. And when there is true democracy in Iraq under a monarchy, Kurds will not need an sub-state to defend their rights.

A key reason the US has slowed formation of an interim Iraqi government has been the difficulty of expanding new decisionmakers beyond major exile groups. Implicit in this is a message that "outsiders" don't represent longsuffering "insiders."

Sherif Ali rejects the notion he may be too far removed. "I'm very in tune with what's going on in Iraq," he says. But, he adds, "I am against people coming from the outside and imposing themselves. All political leaders ... have to prove that we have the support of the Iraqi people."

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