Iraq’s Kadhimi inaugurates renovated royal cemetery to highlight past unity

Move in line with prime minister’s latest efforts to restore sense of normality to daily political scene

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Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi on Sunday inaugurated the renovated royal cemetery in Baghdad, where the country’s three kings were buried.

The move is part of Mr Al Kadhimi’s attempts to restore a sense of normality to the daily political scene after nearly 18 years of unrest and bloodshed.

Since taking office in May, he has promised to improve the quality of Iraqis’ lives, despite the acute economic crisis, political wrangling and foreign interference.

But his government is still struggling to rein in the influence of Iran-backed militias, and his attempts to fight endemic corruption and strengthen relations with Arab neighbours are yet to bear fruit.

Unlike his predecessors, Mr Al Kadhimi is always keen to mingle in public, holding conversations with people and listening to their concerns.

He has invited people with special needs to his office and attended funerals of murdered activists and others.

“I’m here to help you,” Mr Al Kadhimi told a crowd of people who gathered around him when he arrived in the Adhamiya district, where the cemetery is located.

They showered him with candy, a traditional way to warmly welcome a guest in Iraq.

Hadi Jalo Marie, chairman of the Political Decision think tank in Baghdad, said the rehabilitation of the cemetery was meant to send a message.

"The message is a political one not only to Iraqis, but also to the region about boosting the aspects that tie today's Iraq to a part of its history, when it was led by Sunnis and a Hashemite King accepted by the country's Shiites," Mr Marie told The National.

Mr Al Kadhimi took office after widespread protests broke out late in 2019 against the political elite that had ruled the country since the US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime and forced the previous government to resign.

Mr Marie said the Prime Minister’s careful steps were part of his drive to win the coming elections.

The Hashemite monarchy in Iraq was formally established in 1921 when the British installed King Faisal I after the First World War as a reward for the help of his father, Sherif Hussein of Makkah, who fought with TE Lawrence against the Ottoman Empire.

Faisal I had been the king of Syria. He died aged 48 in Bern, Switzerland, of a heart attack in 1933.

His son, King Ghazi, reigned until 1939 when he was killed in a car crash.

At age 3, his son Faisal II was given the title of “boy king” and reigned under the regency of his uncle, Crown Prince Abd Al Ilah.

King Faisal II began his active rule in 1953 when he was 18.

In 1958, the Hashemite monarchy was overthrown in a coup led by the military in what is known as the 14th of July Revolution, establishing the Iraqi republic.

The young king was executed along with several members of his family.

"This site has a significant place in the heart of Iraqis, mainly Baghdad and Adhamiya residents, so renovating it is very important for the people" historian Yassir Nassir, 58, told The National.

“We hope that the authorities open it to the public and turn it into a cultural site with a library and exhibition for the monarchy period, and to turn the plaza outside like [London’s] Hyde Park."

Like hundreds of historical and archaeological sites scattered through Iraq, the cemetery was left neglected and closed for decades.

Saddam's regime, which renovated it in the late 1970s and early 1980s, used to open it occasionally for public or high-profile visitors.

The turquoise-domed, yellow-brick mausoleum was first built to serve as the administrative department for the adjacent Al Bayt University established by King Faisal I.

When he died, King Ghazi had him buried in the garden but moved his body inside when the building was completed.

Iraqi sentiments towards the monarchy that lasted fewer than four decades are divided.

Some see it as a period of prosperity that put the country at the cusp of a golden age, while others say the country was deeply divided between the elites and poor in rural areas.

The cemetery was supposed to be inaugurated by King Abdullah II of Jordan, a direct cousin of the late Hashemite kings of Iraq, on the sidelines of a tripartite summit with Egypt to enhance economic co-operation between three countries.

But the summit has been delayed after a deadly train crash in southern Egypt prevented President Abdel Fattah El Sisi from attending.