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Saturday 21 March 1998
Issue 1030

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Abd al-Rahman al-Iryani

Yemeni who narrowly escaped beheading and became President only to end up an exile

ABD al-Rahman al-Iryani, who has died aged 89, was a moderate in the turbulent politics of Yemen; he narrowly escaped beheading and became the country's first civilian president, before fleeing to exile.

Abd al-Rahman al-Iryani was born in 1909 in Ibb district to a family that originated in Iraq. He had a traditional Islamic education in Sanaa, the capital. His family by custom produced judges in Islamic law, and so al-Iryani bore the title qadi.

In his thirties he joined the political movement al-Ahrar, an organisation of the country's religious and intellectual elite dedicated to ending the isolation of Yemen fostered by the octogenarian Imam Yahya, the hereditary theocratic ruler.

Members of al-Ahrar (Arabic for "the free men") at first invested their hopes for reform in Yahya's son Ahmad, but once Ahmad's authoritarian tendencies became clear, the group's leaders fled to Aden to organise a coup against Yahya. They had their own candidate for the Imamate, Abdallah al-Wazir.

In February 1948, Yahya was machine-gunned in an ambush by tribesmen aligned to al-Ahrar. According to one story, Abdallah al-Wazir observed the ambush through binoculars before seizing the royal palace.

Though he proclaimed himself Imam, Abdallah's power was short-lived. Within four weeks, Yahya's son Ahmad had mobilised an army which took Sanaa. Ahmad was proclaimed Imam by the religious establishment. The coup leaders were executed, and al-Iryani spent the next six years in prison.

In 1955, he was sentenced to death for his part in the attempt. Minutes before he was to be beheaded, Imam Ahmad pardoned him.

In 1962, during Yemen's civil war, the Imamate was defeated, and in the newly formed republic of North Yemen, al-Iryani was appointed minister of religious endowments, and later vice premier. The country was still occupied by an Egyptian army, introduced by Nasser to back the republican side.

The Egyptian army controlled the new government, and unrest persisted as long as it remained. The following year al-Iryani and two other veterans of al-Ahrar resigned in protest against "corrupt, impotent and bankrupt government" and called for a new constitution.

In November 1967, al-Iryani headed a triumvirate that overthrew North Yemen's President Sallal in a coup that was, for a change, bloodless. Al-Iryani was chosen to lead the government as president because he had links with both the republicans and the royalists.

Under him, in 1970, the country adopted a constitution heavily influenced by the conservative religious establishment. In 1971 al-Iryani introduced elections to representative councils.

In 1968 a separate Yemeni state had been formed in South Yemen, comprising Aden and the mountainous Hadramaut region. Throughout his presidency, al-Iryani promoted union between the two states as a way of securing a peaceful resolution of the country's persistent civil conflict.

South Yemen had obtained political and military support from the Soviet bloc, while Saudi Arabia continued to back the dwindling royalist opposition. Al-Iryani sought a path between these two extremes.

In 1972, for a short time, al-Iryani's aspiration of uniting the two Yemens seemed to have a fair chance of succeeding; indeed in October of that year the two countries signed an agreement pledging unity.

But al-Iryani's conciliatory nature was unable to contain the political and military intrigue that the agreement set in train, as tribal and political interests sought to force the course of unity their way. The last straw was an Iraqi plot to overthrow his government. Al-Iryani resigned, and was replaced by the minister of defence, Abdallah al-Ahmar.

After the failure of his attempt to unify the Yemens, al-Iryani went into exile in Damascus, where he spent the rest of his life, only returning briefly to North Yemen in 1980 at the invitation of president Ali Abdallah Salah.

Al-Iryani was married, and had four sons and two daughters.

Next report: Donald Rodney

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