The Last Iraqi King’s Driver: His Death Remains ‘A Black Spot On Iraqi History’
This week marks 60 years since the coup that ended Iraq’s monarchy. NIQASH spoke to the last Iraqi king’s personal driver about why he, like others, believes this date was the beginning of the end for Iraq.
Golden era? King Faisal II (centre) and meets Libyan politicians. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
For 90-year-old Jabbar Hamoud al-Jaefri, Iraq’s modern era began on July 14, 1958. This was the day of a martial coup, during which Iraq’s last king, Faisal II, was killed by troops from the Iraqi army; al-Jaefri was Faisal II’s driver for around eight years.
Many Iraqis are still interested in their country’s royal era. There’s a sense of nostalgia about it, the time when Iraq’s British alliance – the one that became so unpopular it actually led to the monarchy’s overthrow – meant that the country held an important, even powerful, position in the Middle East. Whether justified or not, some still have the feeling that back then, Iraq was more than just a backdrop for war, crisis and dictatorship.
“This was a period of increased prosperity, aided by oil revenues and marked by rapid industrialisation,” columnist Faisal al-Yafai wrote about that (in his opinion, misplaced) nostalgia. “It is perhaps natural that Iraqis would view those years through rose-tinted glasses. Historical accounts of the period recall it as a cultured, outward-facing country, self-confident in its place in the world, less crowded than Cairo, more cosmopolitan than Damascus.”
Faisal II became Iraq’s king when he was just three years old, after his father died in a car crash. His uncle, the eventually-unpopular Abdul Ilah, acted as regent until he was able to be crowned, aged 18. When he and elder members of the royal family were killed in the palace grounds on July 14, 1958, Faisal II was about to be married and many Iraqis felt that the 23-year-old was still something of an innocent.
Al-Jaefri was there. And to this day, he believes that the way the royal family was killed is part of what set his country on the path to the bloody years that would follow under Saddam Hussein and then after the 2003 US-led invasion of the country, right through to this last security crisis caused by the extremist Islamic State group.
Al-Jaefri spoke with NIQASH’s correspondent in Tikrit.
Ever a monarchist: Jabbar Hamoud al-Jaefri
NIQASH: How did you get to be King Faisal II’s driver?
Jabbar Hamoud al-Jaefri: I started working with the king in the early 1950s when I was chosen [as his driver] by a committee formed by the king. The committee used to visit all the military units looking for people who might be qualified to work in the royal court. I was a soldier and I was chosen to drive because I was tall and I had good manners. I worked for the king for eight years.
NIQASH: What did you think of him?
Al-Jaefri: The king was a generous, quiet and very modest man. He used to sit with the poor people in public cafes and walk around the market without any restrictions or bodyguards. He didn't feel threatened because of the stable security conditions enjoyed by the country. His rule was just and during his reign, the country prospered.
The king was a generous, quiet and very modest man.
He did suffer from asthma but he lived like any ordinary person. You couldn’t tell that he was a king.
I never imagined that Abdul Karim Qassim would betray him because he was one of the officers that was so close to the king and to the prime minister. The kingdom was basically run by the king's uncle and guardian, Abdul Ilah.
The king used to visit his parents’ tomb in the royal cemetery every Friday. I remember one day I was sitting in a cafe near the court and the king passed by and saw me. He came in and asked me to play a few games with him. I also remember that day because the owner of the café offered tea and coffee to all the café’s customers for free, because the king had visited.
NIQASH: What were some of the other significant occasions you remember?
Al-Jaefri: I was in the royal procession and our mission was to transfer the official guests. I participated in the receptions of notable figures like the Saudi king, the king of Jordan, and the president of Lebanon. I often had to take royal guests from the airport to their homes and I travelled with the king many times, mostly during his summer trips.
King Faisal II as a young boy, with his guardian, in a portrait by Cecil Beaton.
NIQASH: How much did you get paid for your work?
Al-Jaefri: I was paid a salary of IQD17.5. I was paid out of the royal cavalry’s budget. That was a relatively high salary compared to soldiers in other units. I served the king until the day of the coup but after that I was transferred to a unit in Mosul, then onto Aqrah [in Dohuk] and other locations.
NIQASH: So you were working for Faisal II when the coup happened. What can you tell us about it?
Al-Jaefri: The king was with his family at Rihab Palace. Abdul Karim Qassim was supposed to be taking a regiment to Jordan but instead he diverted the units in order to raid the palace. All of this happened at 6 in the morning. The military were able to occupy the palace because they had coordinated with the commander of the royal guard, stationed only two kilometres from the palace. The patrol charged with guarding the palace had been withdrawn.
After the palace was surrounded, Abdul Ilah came out, followed by the king. He was carrying a Koran and had a piece of white cloth with him. All of the family members and a few of the servants and guards came out with him.
The family was gathered in a small courtyard in the garden when an officer - Abdul Sattar Saba al-Ibousi from Basra – started shooting. The king and his guardian, Abdul Ilah, were first to be killed, followed by Abdul Ilah’s mother and the king’s aunt. Others were injured.
The attackers then toured the city with Abdul Ilah’s body, which was later hung outside the ministry of defence. The bodies of the king and his family were buried in the royal cemetery and remain there today. In my opinion, it would have been much better if those who had carried out the coup had exiled the royal family, as happened in Egypt.
NIQASH: So there was a betrayal?
Al-Jaefri: Yes, there was a betrayal. It became clear that the commander of the royal guard, one of the officers close to Faisal, had agreed not to fight the military units which are going to attack the palace. He could have ordered his men to defend the king and the court, but he didn't. Abdul Karim Qassim later made him a leader of the resistance.
NIQASH: You have lived through several eras in Iraqi leadership. What are your thoughts on Iraq back then, and Iraq now - and in the recent past?
Al-Jaefri: Out of my love for that [royal] era, I decided to continue to be a monarchist. I remember everything because I loved the king. From 1958 until today I have never visited the palace area because I do not want to be reminded of that awful day.
There is a big difference between yesterday and today - in terms of the security we had but also in terms of ethics, honour and leadership. All of the horrors of the coup are a black spot on Iraq’s history.
Newspaper pictures of the Iraqi monarchy that al-Jaefri has had framed.