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A Sword for Hussein

Part-I Commitments under the newly signed pact with Egypt, as well as the prevailing atmosphere of anti-Israeli rage in the Arab world for...

November 20, 2008

A Sword for Hussein

Part-I

Commitments under the newly signed pact with Egypt, as well as the prevailing atmosphere of anti-Israeli rage in the Arab world forced King Hussein bin Talal’s hand at the outbreak of the Six Day War of 1967. Any doubts that he may have had about Jordan entering the war were overcome by a misleading telephone call he received from the Egyptian President at mid-day on 5th June. In a bizarre ‘all is well’ report, Nasser assured Hussein that scores of Israeli aircraft had been downed and that Egyptian armoured columns were pushing across the Negev Desert for a link-up with Jordanian forces in the Hebron Hills. As a matter of fact, the Egyptian Air Force lay in smoking ruins after the Israeli Air Force had delivered a knockout blow! Oblivious of the factual position, King Hussein ordered his armed forces to attack immediately after Nasser’s call.

Parked on the flight lines at Mafraq Air Base were Hunters of No 1 Squadron, the only fighter outfit of the Royal Jordanian Air Force (RJAF). Strapped in the cockpits since morning, the pilots were eagerly awaiting a go-ahead for strikes against Israeli airfields at Kfar Saba, Kfar Sirkin and Natanya. The past few days had been occupied with preparation of maps and low-level flight profiles. The excitement and tension had reached a pitch and all pilots were ready to get into action.

Flt Lt Saif-ul-Azam of the Pakistan Air Force, who had been on secondment with the RJAF since November 1966, was to lead one of the strike missions. At about 0900 hrs, he was told to hand over the lead to a Jordanian pilot and rush to a Hunter that had been readied for an air defence mission. Saif hurriedly strapped into the other aircraft and, along with his wingman Lt Ihsan Shurdom[1], stood on standby eagerly waiting for the hooter to sound the ‘scramble.’

A few days earlier, Saif and his other PAF colleague, Flt Lt Sarwar Shad had been called by the RJAF Commander to ascertain their position in case of war. Both promptly offered their services, while suggesting that the opinion of the Government of Pakistan be obtained for further details. It was tentatively decided that they would fly as ‘volunteers’ in Jordanian uniforms. Official Pakistani clearance to fly only air defence missions was received just in time, which had required Saif to hurriedly switch roles on the tarmac.

After half an hour of impatient waiting in the cockpit, Saif belatedly learnt that the Israeli Air Force had struck Egyptian airfields. Sitting helplessly on the ground waiting for orders was nerve racking and, all pilots squirmed in their cockpits to seek revenge. Mafraq was sure to be attacked, as everyone guessed, so it was some relief when two formations finally took off at 1150 hrs and headed west. A short while later, in a show of solidarity, a formation of six Iraqi Hunters overflew Mafraq on their way to Lydda airfield in Israel. The heightened air activity reached a crescendo when orders were relayed for all aircraft to scramble as fast as they could. Saif and his wingman Ihsan were the first to get airborne in the fervent melee, followed by four more Hunters. Air Traffic Control announced the bad news that one of the Hunters flown by Major Firas al-Ja'uni had been strafed and had caught fire. The unfortunate pilot could not get out of the burning aircraft.

After take-off, Saif contacted the radar for further instructions. The radar controller announced a vector and the interceptors headed in the required direction. Soon, another vector was announced and the pair changed heading. It was not long before the controller declared that there were too many aircraft and it was difficult to make out who was who. Saif was, therefore, asked to be on his own. Noting the controller’s dilemma, Saif called out to his wingman to stay close. Visibility in the hot, dusty desert was barely a mile and there were no signs of enemy aircraft. Saif rechecked with the controller if there were any aircraft approaching Mafraq. His fears were confirmed when he received a reply in the affirmative.

Turning around, Saif headed for the Base. About four miles short, he spotted four aircraft flying in battle formation at low level. The camouflage of the aircraft seen through haze seemed similar to that of the Iraqi formation that had passed overhead some time ago, so Saif was led to believe that they must have been returning after the raid. Following them for a while, he watched with amazement as they changed into echelon formation, getting ready for an attack! Realising his mistake in recognising the Israeli Mystères, which looked similar to Hunters from a distance, Saif promptly manoeuvred behind the trailing aircraft of the formation. As the aircraft was turning for the attack, Saif closed in and let off a smugly-aimed fusillade from the Hunter’s four immensely powerful 30mm cannon. The Mystère[2] caught fire and its pieces started to fly off; Saif had to pull up to avoid hitting the debris. Moments later, the aircraft crashed near the perimeter fence of the Base, with the pilot Capt Hanania Bula still inside the stricken aircraft.

Looking around for other attackers that he had lost during the shooting, Saif noticed the smoke trail of two Mystères charging off towards the west at full power. As Saif turned hard for them, Ihsan, called a bogey on the right. Saif directed Ihsan, who had tenaciously stuck around during the tight manoeuvring, to break off and go after the singleton while he went for the pair on the left.

Saif managed to get behind the trailing Mystère, which had started thrashing about to spoil his aim. During the frantic turn reversals, Saif fired four times but his bullets stayed off the mark. Desperate for a kill, Saif was at wits end when he noticed his quarry loosening the turn and straightening out for home. Closing in to about 600 feet, Saif squeezed the trigger for a fifth time. The Mystère started to trail smoke from its right wing as the Hunter’s guns scored hits[3]. The aircraft ducked down and, before Saif could confirm if it had been terminally despatched, he saw the leader of the enemy pair turning to attack him[4]. Low on fuel and ammunition, Saif wisely decided to disengage and turn for Mafraq.

Reckoning that Mafraq runway had been rendered unfit for use, Saif called all aircraft to hold north of the airfield while he checked the feasibility of landing there. His call for joining instructions was surprisingly answered by a welcome clearance and, the controller followed it up by declaring the runway fit for landing. A sharp-eared Ihsan suspected something wrong and instantly broke into Arabic to check the identity of the controller. He also wanted to know the name of Ihsan’s dog, which was some sort of a cross-check code. The Jordanian controller then came up on the radio and warned them not to land at Mafraq. Ihsan’s presence of mind saved the pair from the trap of an Israeli spoofer, who had cleared them for a landing that was certain to be an unqualified wreck.

All the airborne aircraft diverted to Amman International Airport, which had not yet been visited by the Israelis. The pilots were lucky to have landed shortly before the Israeli Air Force struck the airport. Their aircraft, however, could not escape destruction as they were caught parked in the open. The pilots helplessly watched as the later-version Super Mystères delivered attacks with a new type of rocket-boosted ‘dibber’ bomb, which penetrated deep into the runway surface and cratered it badly. The attacks were delivered from shallow dive angles, which minimised exposure to Anti-Aircraft Artillery guns. Civilian facilities on the airport were strafed and badly damaged. Several transport aircraft and helicopters were also destroyed.

After an eventful morning, the pilots gathered at the Operations Headquarters in Amman to exchange notes about the encounters that had taken place. Ihsan had claimed a Mystère while his leader was busy chasing the exiting pair. One of the Hunter pilots, Capt Wasefi, had ejected near Amman after having been shot down by an Israeli Mirage[5]. RJAF’s sole fighter squadron had put up a spirited fight, though the pilots felt dejected over the losses suffered. The worst blow was the destruction of 20 Hunters on the ground at Mafraq and Amman International. Many of these were being serviced on the flight lines after their morning missions; invaluable expertise in the shape of many technicians was thus lost as well. Sadly, the small RJAF had been virtually wiped out.

An hour later, the pilots were surprised to have in their midst, King Hussein, who had come to cheer them up for their brave effort in Jordan’s first major air war. In the gloomy situation that was prevailing, King Hussein was a paragon of fortitude and courage. He was cognisant of his decision that had brought upon the Jordanians the tribulation that they now faced. He explained the circumstances in which he had decided to go to war. His message was that of faith and hope in the face of adversity. PAF’s Assistant Chief of Staff (Operations), Air Cdre A Rahim Khan, who was visiting Jordan at that time, was also there to express his solidarity with the RJAF personnel.

As if to unburden himself of the debt he owed to the pilots of No 1 Squadron, King Hussein again visited them in the evening. Turning to Saif, he told him to get into his car, a privilege that was extended only to the most honoured compatriots. They drove off to the main hospital to see PAF’s Flt Lt Shad who was convalescing after an appendicitis complication. Later, the King along with Saif drove off to Mafraq, about 40 miles from Amman. Saif recalls that during the drive, King Hussein kept reassuring him like a younger brother. He said that it was a minor setback in a battle and not a defeat in a war, words that were most encouraging and inspiring for Saif. The King was hopeful that more could be done as the war had not yet ended. With young men like Saif around, all was not lost and the fight could go on. After all Saif[6] had been, quite literally, a sword for Hussein. Thus armed, the King was unwilling to give up easily…

Part-II

During the drive from Amman to Mafraq Air Base, King Hussein had told Saif that he had talked to President Abd al-Rehman Arif and offered the services of his pilots to carry on the war from Iraq. President Arif had agreed to provide the aircraft, and soon orders were issued for a move to Iraq.

Around midnight, an expedition consisting of RJAF pilots and support personnel moved in a road convoy, on their way to the cryptically named H-3 Air Base[7] located about 40 miles inside Iraq’s western border. The night in the desert was cold and the ride was rough. The past 24 hours had been turbulent and the physical and mental strain was showing. Partly dozing, partly awake, everyone seemed anxious to get to his destination and become part of the war effort again.

The seemingly endless drive continued as it dawned on the morning of 6th June. The quiet of the desert was broken only by the noise of vehicles and an occasional Iraqi military convoy heading west. Tired and hungry, the party prepared for a roadside breakfast halt. A large number of military transports were dispersed on both sides of the road and, Iraqi troops were resting before their onward journey to the Israeli border. All of a sudden, a formation of four Vautour[8] light bombers, escorted by a pair of Mirage-IIICJ fighters roared overhead, flying east along the road towards H-3. The RJAF convoy promptly halted and everyone dispersed in the desert, just in case the returning raiders decided on a shot of opportunity at the gathering.

As expected, about fifteen minutes later the egressing Israeli aircraft pulled up and started strafing the Iraqi vehicles. After a single pass, they continued onwards with their exit[9]. Two vehicles caught fire and several soldiers were injured. It took some time for everyone to gather again. There were outbursts of rage and, some questioned the wisdom of travelling during daytime. One senior commander suggested a 24-hour halt in the desert, but the young pilots did not like the idea at all. There was much grumbling and disagreement.

Saif, being the lone foreigner, kept out of the discussion, but two young pilots approached him and wanted to know his intentions. Saif said that since he was from the PAF, he was obliged to obey orders to reach H-3 at the earliest and, if the party decided otherwise, he would take a ride on Iraqi transports plying up and down. He was in a bit of a quandary too, as he could not interfere with the contingent commander’s decision. While discussions were going on, a group of youngsters suddenly appeared and asked Saif to take over command of the contingent! Embarrassed about the situation he found himself in, he argued that a coup d’etat in the middle of the desert – that too during war – was the last thing he could contemplate. He was, however, firmly told that since they had decided to arrest and even shoot the commander, it was logical for the next senior to take charge. It took some persuasion on Saif’s part to cool things down.

Saif met the commander separately and tried to explain that the youngsters were raring for a return bout with the Israeli’s, and their emotional state had to be understood. He also explained that under the circumstances, a certain amount of risk had to be taken. The commander was quick to grasp Saif’s argument and ordered everyone to board the transports. A serious situation was thus averted.

The RJAF contingent reached H-3 safe and sound. The Iraqi Air Force personnel were effusive in welcoming them. Before they could move off to their billets, however, the Base Commander revealed a change in plans. It was decided that in view of the vulnerability of H-3, as demonstrated in two previous raids, operations would be undertaken from Habbaniyah Air Base, about 50 miles west of Baghdad. H-3 was to be used as a staging base.

Habbaniyah Air Base, with the meandering Euphrates on one side and the picturesque Lake Habbaniyah on the other, had been host to three Hunter squadrons, including a conversion Unit. A nearby satellite airfield, commonly known as ‘Plateau,’ housed a Tu-16 bomber squadron. Both Bases were under the command of Col Hamid Shaban[10].

After setting course in the afternoon, the contingent reached Habbaniyah at 2100 hrs. For about two hours, nobody seemed to know what to do with the new arrivals. Finally, arrangements were made to house them and some time later, food was served. As it happened, the Base had learnt of their arrival only a short while ago, and messing arrangements for a large contingent took some time. True to Arab tradition, the food was sumptuous and sizzling and the Iraqi hosts were most friendly and hospitable. After a hearty fill, the exhausted and drowsy visitors retired, somewhat hesitant of what lay in store for the next day.

A gentle nudge and a whispering voice woke up Saif early at dawn on the morning of 7th June. Looking around, he found the same Iraqi Lieutenant who had met him the night before. The young officer conveyed the Base Commander’s message, “He needs four pilots to volunteer for the first mission to take-off shortly and you are requested to lead!” Saif had heard of such detailing of volunteers as party jokes in the PAF, but this was the first time it was being played on him.

Once at the Base Headquarters, the RJAF pilots were hurriedly introduced to the senior commanders and other officers. There was no time to be wasted. Intelligence information had indicated that a large formation of Israeli planes was expected to repeat a strike on H-3. Saif was, therefore, to lead a four-ship formation to intercept the raiders.

Saif immediately got down to briefing the pilots. His formation consisted of Lt Ihsan Shurdom, his trusted wingman of RJAF, along with Lt Samir Yousaf Zainal and 2nd Lt Ghalib Abdul Hameed al-Qaysee of Iraqi Air Force. It was a truly international group, meeting for the first time over a cup of tea. Not knowing much about each other’s experience and operational training standards, they were committed to be comrades-in-arms. They were ready to engage the enemy, a desire sustained by their common Faith.

While they were having late breakfast, they received a message[11] to take-off immediately. Within minutes, the four-ship Hunter formation was on its way to H-3. Climbing to 25,000 ft, the formation members maintained radio silence till the controller announced, “Expecting enemy attacks on H-3.” Moments later, he called out confidently, “Leader, there is a big formation pulling up over H-3, descend and engage it.”

The Israeli formation consisted of six aircraft. A section of four Vautours of No 110 Squadron was led by the Deputy Squadron Commander Capt Shlomo Keren in a two-seater, with Capt Alexander Meltzer as his navigator. The other members were Col Yehezkel Someh (Base Commander of Ramat David Air Base), Capt Yitzhak Golan and Lt Avshalom Friedman in single seaters[12]. Two Mirages of No 117 Squadron doubled up as armed escorts, each carrying two bombs; Maj Ezra Dotan led the pair, with Capt Gideon Dror as wingman.

The Hunters were five miles short of H-3 when Saif started diving down towards the airfield and called out for arming the guns. Soon, he spotted two Vautours approaching from the west. “Right boys, follow me and let us descend faster.” Ihsan chipped in, “Sir, how about punching the drop tanks?” Saif realised his mistake and ordered all to jettison their 230-gallon tanks. Engrossed in spotting the aircraft, Saif had overlooked a vital check but was relieved to know that his formation members were alert.

As Saif manoeuvred to get behind the Vautours, Samir called out, “Two Mirages behind you.” Looking back, Saif saw the pair about 4,000 feet behind, turning for them. In an instant, Saif decided to split his formation, with himself and Ihsan (No 2) going for the Mirages while Samir and Ghalib (Nos 3 & 4) went for the Vautours. Turning hard to the right, Saif cramped the Mirages for manoeuvring space, forcing them to pull up for a ‘yo yo.’ Reversing his turn, Saif noticed one of the Mirages still turning right, apparently having lost sight of the Hunters. Saif managed to turn inside the Mirage and started to catch up fast. At the extreme limits of range, the Mirage could not light up its fuel-guzzling afterburner, or else it could have easily out-run the subsonic Hunter. In the event, the Mirage had to face the Hunter’s lethal cannon. Uttering ‘Bismillah[13],’ Saif pressed the trigger for about two seconds. The bullets landed squarely on the wings, as sparks flew off the metal skin. Suddenly, the Mirage was engulfed in a big ball of fire; the pilot, Capt Dror, ejected in full view of the Base personnel watching from the ground.

“Leader, you have finally won the bet, it’s a Mirage,” called Ihsan on the radio. “You bet it is, but stop the fun and look out for more,” responded Saif. Several months ago, Saif had a dream in which he saw that he had shot down an Israeli Mirage. When he narrated his dream in the squadron, the pilots seemed so impressed that instead of laughing it off as a joke, they got into an animated discussion on the basics of air combat. Ihsan had then bet that if Saif ever shot down a Mirage in real life, a precious gift and a grand party would follow. Now, in the middle of air combat, Ihsan had not lost his wit and humour one bit!

Breaking off to the right after downing the Mirage, Saif spotted a Vautour coming head-on, about 2,000 feet below. Without batting an eyelid, Saif inverted his aircraft and pulled through for a ‘split-S.’ The manoeuvre can go awry if there is insufficient clearance from the ground, but Saif pulled back on the control stick to the point of almost blacking out. When he levelled off, he found himself behind the Vautour, charging in with a very high rate of closure despite the speed brakes opened and throttle pulled back to idle. The distance was now only 200 feet, too close for the safety of his own aircraft were the much larger Vautour to explode like his previous victim. Deciding not to miss the chance, Saif opened fire and after three bursts of his cannon, saw parts of the aircraft fly off. His own aircraft juddered as if hit by something; Saif had to look around to be sure he was not being shot at.

Capt Golan lost control and ejected from his disintegrating Vautour. Saif called up the ATC tower to spot two white parachutes, which he thought to be those from a two-seat Vautour. Actually, the chutes were those of Dror, who had ejected from the Mirage at a higher altitude a little earlier, and Golan who escaped low from the Vautour. Both now found themselves parachuting in formation, ironically, Dror still escorting Golan!

Low on fuel, Saif was planning to exit when he heard Samir call out excitedly, “Leader, I have shot him, I have shot a Vautour, I have shot a Vautour.” Saif had to quieten him down, lest he block vital communication on the radio. In the melee, Ihsan also called that he had shot a Vautour.

As Saif started to gather the formation, he saw a Mirage (flown by Maj Dotan) chasing a Hunter right over the airfield. It was Ghalib's Hunter and, it was trailing smoke. Turn by turn everyone called him on the radio to eject but he did not respond. The aircraft went into a shallow dive and hit the abandoned oil tanks near the airfield. The sad incident overshadowed the otherwise successful mission.

Everyone’s fuel was marginal after such heavy demands on the engines. Samir’s fuel state was most critical so he decided to land at H-3, despite some damage to the runway. Saif and Ihsan made it to Habbaniyah, but only after a cruise at high altitude. Spotting the airfield in unfamiliar area was, luckily, not a problem as the road to Habbaniyah was conspicuous in the desert. Allowing Ihsan to break-off and land first, Saif followed through a straight-in approach.

A large crowd had gathered at the flight lines. As Saif switched off and came out of the aircraft, he was lifted up and paraded all over the place. Everyone was shouting, “Death to Zionism, death to Israel.” Saif had tears of joy in his eyes. He recalls thanking Allah for the success and also prayed for young Ghalib, whom he had met barely for half an hour before the fateful mission.

Some airmen had also gathered around Saif’s Hunter and, were expressing their amazement at the nerve of the intrepid pilot who had rammed into the Israeli aircraft when he ran out of ammunition! They could not have been blamed for their mistake because the Vautour’s flying debris had damaged the Hunter’s wingtips and, some metal pieces were embedded in its fuselage after the close-range shooting.

When Saif reached the squadron, he was told that two Israeli aircrew had been captured at H-3 and were under despatch to Baghdad. He was more interested in his wingman Ihsan who was nowhere to be seen, despite the fact that he was supposed to have landed earlier. No one seemed to give him a satisfactory reply, except that Ihsan would be there shortly. Saif’s concern was short-lived, as Ihsan arrived after about fifteen minutes with a grin on his face. Saif discovered the truth when Ihsan confessed that he had landed at the nearby ‘Plateau’ airfield, mistaking it for Habbaniyah.

The epilogue to the raid on H-3 was a report received from Saudi Arabia confirming the crash of a two-seat Vautour-IIN on its northern border with Iraq. Both the pilots had been found dead. Capt Keren and Capt Meltzer[14] had tried to nurse the stricken aircraft back through a safer route after being hit over H-3, but their luck ran out. If one were to go by Lt Samir’s radio calls alone, his claim of a Vautour could easily prevail but, in all earnestness, it could also have been Ihsan’s kill.

The plethora of accomplishments by the Israeli Air Force did not prevent a scathing indictment of the conduct of operations over H-3, in the post-war debrief. Col Eleizer Cohen, in his book Israel’s Best Defense alludes to it by stating, “The damage to H-3 was peripheral, and the losses – a killed pilot and navigator, two pilots captured and three aircraft downed – were heavier than at any other base[15].” Maj Gen Mordechai Hod, the Commander of the Israeli Air Force is said to have remarked that the critique of H-3 fiasco made him feel almost as if he had lost the war. Whatever factors may have been discussed during the debrief, there is little doubt that the Israelis were aware of the H-3 rout being the handiwork of a determined team, under the able leadership of a first class PAF pilot. That Mossad was ignorant of this fact would be under-rating the capabilities of a notoriously efficient intelligence outfit.

Saif-ul-Azam’s exploits in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War were a display of true grit in an otherwise dismal showing, which made him a hero in several countries. The Government of Jordan admitted him to the prestigious Wisam al-Istaqlal, while the Iraqi Government conferred the Nawt al-Shuja’a. The Pakistani Government rewarded him with a Sitara-i-Basalat[16]. Earlier, in the 1965 Indo-Pak War, he had shot down an Indian Gnat[17] for which he was awarded the Sitara-i-Jur’at. He has the unique achievement of downing four different types of aircraft while flying with three different Air Forces. He eventually donned the uniform of yet another Air Force when he moved to his new homeland, Bangladesh, in 1972.
_________________________

[1] Shurdom later rose to be the Commander of RJAF.
[2] The raiding aircraft were the Mystère-IVA of No 116 Squadron, though some writings have erroneously mentioned them as Super Mystères.
[3] The Mystère pilot Capt Z Porat, who managed to land back with a damaged aircraft, attributed it to AAA fire.
[4] Captain Mario Shaked, the IAF pair leader, incorrectly claimed downing Saif’s Hunter.
[5] Wasefi was shot down near Amman by a Mirage-IIIC flown by Capt Oded Sagee after a long chase, following RJAF’s raid on Kfar Sirkin airfield.
[6] Saif means ‘sword’ in Arabic.
[7] A chain of pumping stations for an oil pipeline from Kirkuk in Iraq, to Haifa in what is now Israel, was denoted by H-series during the time of British Mandate, hence the nearby Air Base named thus. It was also known as Al-Walid Air Base.
[8] Vautour means ‘vulture’ in French.
[9] This minor incident narrated by Flt Lt Saif-ul-Azam is also described from an aerial vantage point by Maj Herzle Bodinger, the leader of the Vautour formation, in Israel’s Best Defense by Col Eliezer Cohen (page 235). Bodinger later rose to be the Commander of Israeli Air Force.
[10] Shaban later rose to be the Commander of Iraqi Air Force.
[11] Israeli’s contend that the Syrians notified the Iraqi’s about the impending raid after the strike package unwittingly overflew a Syrian radar site near Dar’a, on its way to H-3.
[12] Of the 20 Vautours available to the Israeli Air Force in 1967, a few were two-seat models; every four-ship formation included a two-seat Vautour-IIN in the lead along with three single-seat Vautour-IIAs.
[13] ‘[I commence] In the name of Allah.’
[14] Meltzer is said to have attempted a late ejection, which proved fatal. The bodies of Keren and Meltzer were returned to Israel two months after the war.
[15] Page 252.
[16] The Sitara-i-Basalat (Star of Courage), conferred for ‘valour, courage and devotion to duty during operations not involving the enemy,’ was found to be an expedient solution at that time, as the Pakistani Government did not want to cast its armed forces in a mercenary role when participating in combat operations abroad. This pretence was later set aside and PAF pilots were conferred with proper gallantry awards.
[17] Saif-ul-Azam shot down an IAF Gnat flown by Flg Off Vijay Mayadev on 19th Sep, 1965 near Sialkot.

This article is based on two excerpted chapters from Air Cdre Kaiser Tufail's book, Great Air Battles of Pakistan Air Force, published by Ferozsons (Pvt) Ltd, 2005. It was also published in Defence Journal, June 2003 issue.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Knowing Uncle Azam in my boyhood and not knowing of his fantastic accomplishment is a travesty. I knew he did well in 67 but not to this extent. I always admired him as one of the coolest people I've met - a true Tiger. Thank you for these heartening stories.
Bakhtiar Hafeez