Royal pretender claims he is the man to fill the leadership vacuum

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THE COUSIN of Iraq’s last king said yesterday he is certain the majority of Iraqis want a return to the monarchy.

However, Sharif Ali bin Hussein, a wealthy London banker and apparent heir to the throne, said elections should be held to prove he is right.

"I’m here to settle in Iraq, I’m home now," Mr Sharif Ali said, three days after his return to Iraq after 45 years in exile.

Sharif Ali was taken from Baghdad as a baby by his parents after his cousin Faisal II - Iraq’s last king - was killed in a 1958 coup. He returned to Iraq on Tuesday.

"It is very clear to us that the majority of Iraqi people want the return of the monarchy," said the tall, soft-spoken Royal pretender, using the Royal "we" in an interview.

He said the way to prove that "is elections sooner rather than later".

He spoke at the Al-Jadiriyh Royal mansion, with the Royal flag beside him and a picture of King Faisal II behind him. The palace was a VIP guesthouse during Saddam Hussein’s regime, but has been taken over by Mr Sharif Ali’s Constitutional Monarchy Movement.

It is unclear how much support a monarchy would command in Iraq. Some Iraqis say that after 36 years of Baathist rule, they have come to hate all political parties; while Iraq under Saddam Hussein was nominally a republic, the Baath party became a vehicle for power exercised more brutally and arbitrarily than under many monarchies.

Mr Sharif Ali’s aides say he is a symbolic figure who can soothe Iraq’s political chaos, but his family never had immense support here. They argue that the monarchies of the Middle East - notably those of Morocco, Jordan, and Qatar - have made the most progress on political and economic reforms.

The United States is determined not to let Shiite Muslim clerics and their organisations take power.

Mr Sharif Ali, while a Sunni, is acceptable to Shiites, his backers claim.

Mr Sharif Ali said the only way to achieve legitimate leadership in postwar Iraq is through the ballot box.

"Leaders shouldn’t be imposed or appointed by the coalition forces," he said in flawless English. His accent, in Arabic, is distinctly not Iraqi.

Despite the damage of the war and of 35 years of Saddam’s brutal rule, Iraq’s Royal pretender said he was hopeful for the country’s future and grateful to US troops for deposing Saddam.

The banker, 45, called Iraq’s new occupiers "our friends and guests in Iraq ... who gave blood and money to save us from the regime of Saddam Hussein. I trust as our friends, they will know when it is time to leave," he added.

Mr Sharif Ali is descended from the same Hashemite Royal family that rules Jordan. Its Iraqi branch, under Faisal I, was installed by Britain after the First World War.

No direct heirs to the throne exist and Mr Sharif Ali has two cousins from Jordan’s Royal Family who have been mentioned as possible contenders for the throne.

The Constitutional Monarchy Movement is one of several political forces competing to fill a power vacuum left by Saddam’s ouster.

Mr Sharif Ali toured Iraq’s biggest medical centre yesterday, chatting with doctors over sweet Iraqi tea.

He greeted people as he walked to the nearby al-Mansour Children’s Hospital. He distributed gifts to sick children and promised to do what he can to meet their urgent needs.

Restoring security, basic services, economic stability and a functioning legal system are the main challenges facing Iraq, he said.

"My hopes stem from that the Iraqi people are still vibrant and capable people. If any other people had been through what Iraqis have gone through, they would have given up a long time ago."