A Prince With a Plan for Iraq
By David Ignatius
Friday, January 9, 2004; Page A17
LONDON -- Can a Jordanian prince help Iraq along the path to democracy? Many U.S., British and Iraqi experts doubt it. They say the Iraqis, having come such a long and bloody way since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, won't want even temporary links with the Hashemite monarchy that was toppled in 1958.
But the issue is likely to surface in coming weeks, no matter what the experts think. Jordan's Prince Hassan, the brother of the late King Hussein, says he hopes to go to Baghdad soon to attend a conference aimed at easing tensions between Iraq's feuding Shiite and Sunni Muslim communities. As a Hashemite who traces his lineage to the Prophet Muhammad, Hassan thinks he can play a unifying role.
Hassan disclosed his plans in an interview here, noting that he expects to visit Iraq by the end of February. He described the trip as a follow-up to a religious conference he hosted in Amman last May, which he said was attended by representatives of prominent Sunni and Shiite leaders, including people close to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
The prince said he has discussed his visit with members of some of Iraq's big tribes, including the Shamar, the Saadoun and the Rabia. "I found that in these meetings, I was able to be recognized as someone with a proven track record and not a newcomer to the scene. I felt I had the facility to involve Shia and Sunni" and other Iraqi religious groups.
Although Hassan said he wasn't seeking to play any specific role in Iraq's political future, he was clearly signaling a willingness to be drafted. "Almost every tribal denomination in Iraq has been involved in trying to seek the light at the end of the tunnel," he said. "My view is that we need to move from government by power to government by participation. In that sense, cultural participation is basically what I have to offer to Iraqis."
Later in the interview, Hassan suggested that perhaps he could play a transitional role over the next three years, while Iraq is writing a permanent constitution. The options he cited included acting as provisional head of state, provisional regent or member of a transitional council. He said he had no desire to be king of Iraq, and he noted that "using the 'K' word is unsettling" to Iraqis.
Hassan, 56, is a poignant figure. He was for decades crown prince of Jordan, but he lost his chance at the throne when King Hussein decided, just before his death in 1999, to designate his son Abdullah as heir. Intelligent and urbane, Hassan has sought to play useful public roles in the years since. His Iraq interest first surfaced at a conference of the Iraqi opposition in London in July 2002, but he later appeared to back away.
Any serious push by Hassan in Iraqi politics would probably be opposed by the United States, Britain and, most important, Jordan itself. King Abdullah is said to have reluctantly approved Hassan's plan to visit Iraq for the meeting of religious leaders. But Abdullah -- who has heard through his own channels that some Iraqi tribal and religious leaders are nostalgic for the days of King Faisal II, the Hashemite king who was toppled in 1958 -- would prefer to manage any future discussion of the Hashemite role himself.
The British government, which put the Hashemites in power in Jordan and Iraq back in the 1920s, appears skeptical about Hassan's plans. One British official said Hassan was asking the right question -- in stressing the importance of unifying Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis -- but that he would not be a popular mediator.
"If we could have a figurehead acceptable to all parties, that would be ideal," the British official said. But he cautioned: "We see no serious interest among the Iraqi tribes in having a constitutional monarchy."
U.S. experts are similarly dubious. They note that Iraqi opinion polls show a low level of support for a restored monarchy. "It is fantasy for Hassan and his friends to think he could become a transitional regent in Iraq," says Judith Yaphe, an Iraq expert at the National Defense University in Washington. "He would be seen as a foreigner imposed from outside."
Hassan may be the wrong man, but this is the right issue. The U.S. occupation authorities need to find some umbrella under which Iraq's fragmented religious and ethnic groups can gather for long enough to write the new political rules that will govern their country. Either they find that unity or Iraq's drift toward de facto partition and the risk of civil war will continue.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company