etcetera | Obituaries Electronic Telegraph
Saturday 5 July 1997
Issue 771

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Muhammad Fadil al-Jamali

American-educated Iraqi Prime Minister who was sentenced to death after a coup

MUHAMMAD FADIL AL-JAMALI, who has died aged 94, was twice Prime Minister of Iraq; he was also the last surviving original signatory of the Charter of the United Nations.

An outward-looking and humane Arab nationalist, he was active in the post-war period of European withdrawal from the Near East. He pushed hard for the union of his country with Syria, and opposed both the "atheist religion" of communism and Western colonialism.

His political career ended with the military coup in Iraq in 1958, during which he was sentenced to death. He spent three years in prison, most of it a single cell with other members of the deposed cabinet. His sentence was commuted after appeals from world leaders, including the UN secretary general Dag Hammarskjold and Pope John XXIII.

The coup leader and dictator Abd al-Karim al-Qassem told al-Jamali on his release that he had considered him too valuable to execute, and had imprisoned him to ensure his safety.

By then al-Jamali was a respected figure in international forums. He was a forceful advocate of non-alignment and idealist Islamic values. He had also fought hard for a fair resolution of the Palestine question.

Muhammad Fadil al-Jamali was born near Baghdad on April 20 1903, in Kadhimain, a Shi'ite theological centre on the Tigris. His father, Sheikh Abbas ibn Hajji Muhammad al-Jamali, was a leading Shi'ite cleric and scholar, and the young al-Jamali underwent a strict religious education.

It came as a shock to his father when, in 1919, al-Jamali was awarded a government scholarship to the American University of Beirut (AUB), a college established by Protestant missionaries. Sheikh Abbas's reluctance to allow his son to be exposed to Christian ways was overcome by a religious ruling, or fatwa, by a senior divine, which stated there was no danger in al-Jamali's attending a Christian institution with the aim of serving Islam in the future. Al-Jamali left for Beirut in 1921, among the group of the first Iraqis to attend AUB.

Al-Jamali later received a fellowship to Teachers College, part of Columbia University in New York. He received a doctorate in education in 1932, and was appointed to Iraq's ministry of education. He soon became its director-general, a post he held for 10 years.

During his American sojourn he met the woman he married, Sarah Hayden Powell, the daughter of the head of the Minnesota branch of the Federal Reserve Bank. They were married in 1933 in Baghdad. In 1935 they had their first child, a son, who four years later was struck with serious brain damage after an infection. This experience gave both parents an enduring concern for the care of the mentally retarded.

In 1943 the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri al-Said, ordered al-Jamali's transfer to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The reasons for this were obscurely political. Although nominally independent, Iraq was still under the influence of Britain, then at the height of war with Germany.

Al-Jamali had been confused in British intelligence reports with a near namesake who had enthusiastically gone to meet Hitler (on the Arab principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend). Even after this misunderstanding was resolved, al-Jamali was considered too prominent an Arab nationalist for British comfort, and he was moved sideways.

Two years later he was a member of the Iraqi delegation to the UN organisational conference in San Francisco. Here al-Jamali argued strongly against the veto power of the five permanent members of the security council. His efforts earned him a rebuke from British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden: "Jamali, stop fighting the veto or there will be no United Nations."

Although a junior member of the Iraqi delegation, he signed the UN Charter on Iraq's behalf because the delegation's senior members, including Nuri al-Said, had left in protest against American policy on Palestine.

He became Foreign Minister in 1945, and in 1949 Iraq's Permanent Representative to the UN. He served as Prime Minister in 1953 and 1954, under the newly enthroned, 18-year-old King Faisal II. When Nuri al-Said returned to power in 1954 he appointed al-Jamali foreign minister.

In 1955 al-Jamali negotiated Iraq's entry into the Baghdad Pact, a Western-oriented, anti-Soviet defence agreement, and later that year faced the wrath of Leftward-leaning Arab states, led by Nasser's Egypt, at the founding conference of the non-aligned movement at Bandung, Indonesia.

In the revolt against the monarchy on July 14 1958, al-Jamali was arrested, after false reports had been broadcast that he had been executed and dragged through the streets of Baghdad by demonstrators. To justify his arrest a crime was defined, applicable retrospectively, of giving a speech at an international organisation against any Arab head of state.

Al-Jamali's trials were televised, and he was sentenced to death, 55 years in prison, and fined 100,000 dinars. During the three years he spent in jail before being pardoned, he wrote a book of religious instruction for his son Abbas.

After his release in 1961 he was offered a haven in Tunisia by President Habib Bouguiba, an old friend, and lived there for the rest of his life, teaching philosophy of education at Tunis University and writing.

He and his wife Sarah had three sons.


Next report: Annie Fratellini

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