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Thursday, 8 August, 2002, 21:56 GMT 22:56 UK
Iraqi 'king' urges Saddam's overthrow
Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein
Sharif Ali is known as an elegant and regal figure
Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein has a claim to be king of Iraq - if the Iraqis wanted one. But the London-based exile is part of a group representing powerful opposition forces outside the Baghdad regime.

As opposition leaders head to the US for talks, he tells BBC News Online he believes military action is inevitable and how as an arch-monarchist, he is now ready to fight to the end for democracy.


"The entire population of Iraq will not fight for or defend Saddam Hussein - they will look to overturn him," says Sharif Ali, reclining in an armchair in his luxurious west London apartment.

"We have as a people learnt bitter lessons about dictatorship."

As speculation grows about the prospect of military action against Iraq, the question of what the Iraqi people want - of what or whom could replace Saddam Hussein - begs an answer.

Holland Park apartment block
The former investment banker lives in west London
Later this week, key members of the Iraqi opposition-in-exile meet the US administration in Washington for talks likely to focus on how Saddam Hussein should be toppled, and what coherent alternative can fill the power vacuum.

Sharif Ali, 46, speaks for the Iraqi National Congress - a British-based umbrella group claiming to represent the most powerful opposition forces ranged against Baghdad.

Among its members are the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Constitutional Monarchy Movement and the two main Kurdish groups based in northern Iraq.

But the former investment banker is also a monarchist - a man with claims on the throne of Iraq as the first cousin of King Faisal II, shot and deposed in a coup in 1958.

Scrabble for power

He says the INC has "good and close" links with the US and UK Governments and will play a major role in bringing about President George Bush's target of "regime change" in Iraq.

But critics say the INC and other exiled opposition groups have little support inside the country itself - and that it is the Iraqi military that holds the real key to change in Iraq.

Sharif Ali's family fled Iraq when he was two years old. He grew up in Lebanon and Britain, studying economics and fulfilling a lucrative investment banking career in London.

Crowd celebrating Saddam Hussein's birthday
"People of Iraq must decide country's future"
He has a reputation for elegance - in his manners and his dress - and cuts a regal figure as he stands by a portrait in his heavily-draped apartment.

For such a man there is no unseemly talk of a scrabble for power. But if Saddam Hussein is deposed, it is clear that a strong alternative must be found to replace him - and many groups and individuals are staking a claim.

The INC presents itself as an agent of change for a unified Iraq that has the support of the US, and rejects the charge that it has no power-base in-country.

"One example is our Kurdish partners in the INC who control an area which is a third the size of Iraq and has a quarter of the population," said Sharif Ali.

"They probably have under their control between 20 and 40,000 troops."

It has been suggested that Kurdish groups in northern Iraq could play a key role in any US military action to unseat Saddam Hussein, mirroring the role of the Afghan Northern Alliance in toppling the Taleban.

'Bush cannot impose change'

But relying on the Kurds would be politically difficult for the US because this would be opposed by the US's key ally Turkey.

Since Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, there has been a steady stream of asylum seekers heading to the UK from Iraq. In 1993 the Home Office dealt with 495 applications for refugee status - in 2000 it received 7,475.

Of the ordinary Iraqis contacted by BBC News Online, many harboured painful memories of the Gulf War and were wary of what they saw as an increasingly belligerent US position.

Saddam Hussein
If Saddam were toppled, who would replace him?
Dr Settuh Benjamin, a psychiatrist at Sutton Hospital in Surrey, who came to the UK from Baghdad 30 years ago, said she was "furious and dismayed" by US and UK talk of military action.

"I would like a better regime in Iraq - a more democratic government, more freedom to talk without being bundled into prison. But that must be left up to the people... it can't be imposed by the US."

While Sharif Ali and his coalition partners may harbour personal or party political ambitions of power in a post-Saddam regime, they share a concern for the welfare of the homeland they have left behind.

"As a political culture we now understand the importance of consensus and non-violence and that we need to support each other to prevent a single person or a single group dominating the political landscape.

"We will fight for each other's rights to express opinion and political activity, to the death virtually, because if we don't then we will all become victims once again."


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Iraqis living in Britain tell BBC News Online they are deeply concerned about the possibility of military action in IraqWar fears
British Iraqis 'dismayed' by talk of attacks
See also:

21 Mar 02 | Middle East
27 Jul 02 | Middle East
12 Jul 02 | Middle East
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