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Decades after king's toppling, Iraq revisits its royal history

The date of the assassination of Iraq's last king – July 14, 1958 – has long been a national holiday. In a sign of changing attitudes, some politicians say it's time to rethink that.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent / November 22, 2012

Cars given to Iraq's King Ghazi on display at the first exhibit in Iraq since the royal family was toppled in 1958.

Jane Arraf

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Baghdad

More than half a century after Iraq’s monarchy was toppled in a violent coup, Iraqis are coming to grips with a controversial part of their history that some consider the country's golden age.

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July 14, when King Faisel II and members of his family were killed in 1958, is celebrated as a national holiday here. Bridges and roads are named after that date.

But there are calls by some politicians to revoke those celebrations. The Iraqi post office, responding to popular demand, has issued stamps commemorating Iraq’s King Faisel and his son and grandson who later took the throne.

And at an unprecedented exhibit of photographs and royal memorabilia recently, hundreds of Iraqis came daily to marvel at a history some didn’t know they’d had, or reminisce about a more peaceful time.

Raghad al-Suhail, a university professor and writer, is too young to have known the royal family, but she peered at the photographs as if searching for old friends.

Her father, she says, was the last person to play tennis with King Faisel II before he and his relatives were shot dead by a group of Army officers. Seeing the photos makes her want to cry.

“I loved King Faisel – all my family loved him,” she says. “He made Iraq. He built Iraq…. Who came after King Faisel and what did they do for us? The one who built Iraq, who said to the world, ‘we have a place which is called Iraq,’ was King Faisel.”

In the photographs, Iraq’s last king is eternally young – both the boy and the country at an age where everything seemed new and full of promise. In some photos, he poses delightedly in the new motor-cars, which were still sharing the roads with horse-drawn carriages. In others he’s a young boy playing football with his friends or fixing his bike.  

Faisel II was only three years old when his father, King Ghazi, was killed in a car crash. He ascended the throne when he was 18 and reigned for just five years before he was killed in the revolution that ended the British-backed monarchy.

Class differences still resonate

In an era in which Iraq’s oil industry was in its infancy, the royal family lived a life of privilege but not opulence.  But for some, the class differences that helped spark the revolution still resonate.

“We were dying from hunger, we had nothing, we were barefoot. Go back to the monarchy? Never! ” says Baghdad resident Kadhim al-Uqali, before launching into a nationalist poem. Mr. Uqali says he was given a pair of shoes by the king after ranking first in his class.

The revolution paved the way for a republic later headed by Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. Until Mr. Hussein was toppled in 2003, the only portrait it was safe to hang was his own.

First public display of royal life

The exhibit at a cultural center on al-Mutanabi street was the first time Iraqis have seen royal life displayed in public.

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