Faisal II (1935-1958) became king of Iraq at a turbulent time in his nation's history. Although he began his reign with good intentions, his political support soon declined and Faisal's government was over thrown in a 1958 military coup.

Faisal was born on May 2, 1935 in Baghdad, Iraq. He was the only child of King Ghazi and Queen Aliya. When the boy was three years old, his father was killed in an automobile accident. Although Faisal was heir to the Iraqi throne, his uncle, Abdul Ilah acted as regent until the new king came of age. In April 1941, Abdul Ilah escaped a military revolt that apparently aimed to kill him and lead Iraq to join the Axis powers. Abdul Ilah fled to Jordan (ruled by his uncle Abdullah), while the young Faisal and his mother sought refuge outside Baghdad. However, the promised German aid did not arrive, and within a month the Royal Air Force, the (Jordanian) Arab Legion, and a small British force had defeated the Iraqi military. Abdul Ilah re-assumed his regency of Iraq, and Faisal returned to the palace. Iraq resumed the British alliance, and joined the United Nations. Cabinets in Baghdad continued to rise and fall in rapid succession.

Ascended Throne at Age 18

As a child, Faisal was tutored at the palace with several Iraqi boys. After World War II the young king began his education in Britain, finishing at Harrow in 1952. The next year, on his 18th birthday, he ascended the throne as Faisal II. Faisal II began his reign with good intentions and a seriousness of purpose that his father had lacked.

For guidance, he continued to rely on Abdul Ilah and the veteran politician and nationalist, General Nuri al-Sa'id. With oil production now providing large revenues, the government determined to devote 70% of the wealth to development projects—sound economic sense, but one that reduced political support. More seriously, the political system of Iraq began to fracture. Though public security seemed assured, elections failed to represent popular dissatisfaction with conditions. The same landowners repeatedly dominated parliament and formed cabinets, little aware of the resentment rising against them as the gap widened rapidly between their wealth and the poverty of peasants and urban workers.

Important decisions taken by the government alienated modern, educated Iraqis and hastened its demise. First, Iraq joined the U.S.-inspired alliance against the Soviets; indeed, it was named the Baghdad Pact. No other Arab state joined the group. The increasingly attractive Egyptian revolutionary leader, Gamel Abdel Nasser, opposed it strongly. Arab nationalists argued fiercely that threats to the Arab lands came not from the Soviet Union, but from Israel. Despite ruthless police repression, the riots against the Baghdad Pact lasted three days.

Iraq also failed to support Egypt vigorously enough during the 1956 Suez War. To many Iraqis, a fellow Arab state had been attacked by Israel and Britain together, while the Iraqi monarchy allied with Britain.

With events in the Arab world moving rapidly, in early 1958 Egypt and Syria formed the United Arab Republic. Isolated, the Hashemite monarchies of Jordan and Iraq announced plans to unite as well. However, on July 14, 1958, a division of the Iraqi army under the command of General Abdul Karim Kassem (Qasim) marched on Baghdad and overthrew the monarchy. King Faisal II and his uncle, Emir Abdul Ilah, perished in the brief fighting, while General Nuri al-Sa'id was later butchered in the streets. Iraq became a republic, and Hashemite rule remained only in Jordan.

Further Reading on Faisal II

Khadduri, Majid. Independent Iraq, 1932-1958. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 1960.

Lawrence, T. E. Seven Pillars of Wisdom, (various editions).

Longrigg, Stephen H. Iraq, 1900 to 1950. Oxford University Press, 1953.

Morris, James. The Hashemite Kings.