A veteran of the Kurdish struggle for independence who was the first non-Arab president of Iraq
JALAL TALABANI, who died on Tuesday in a Berlin hospital aged 83, became in 2005 the first elected president of Iraq, and did as much as anyone at the time to reconcile its warring factions.
An authoritative figure in Iraqi opposition politics for more than 50 years, his appointment made Talabani, a Kurd, the first non-Arab president of an Arab country. But despite his long history of promoting the Kurdish cause before he took office, once installed as president he was regarded as a vital mediator between Iraq’s fractious Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish communities.
Though the presidency is largely a ceremonial role, Talabani’s stabilising influence had a crucial, practical impact in post-war Iraq. Before he suffered a debilitating stroke in 2012 — and stepped down two years later — he had forged a steady working relationship with the Shia prime minister, Nouri al Maliki. But he was unable to relieve the deadlock that inevitably afflicted Iraq’s multi-ethnic governing framework.
Kurds first acknowledged his reassuring, amiable, stout, almost paternalistic presence with the nickname “Mam” (Uncle) Jalal. But in the years after 2003 he was accepted far beyond the Kurdish community as a figure capable of defusing sectarian and ethnic battles. Such a reputation for conciliation had seemed unlikely at the outset of his political career, however, when he had been unable to prevent infighting within his own people, let alone pour balm on relations with Iraq’s other communities.
Jalal Talabani was born on November 12, 1933 in the village of Kelkan, near Lake Dolkan in Iraqi Kurdistan. His family moved to Erbil and then to the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, where he completed his education to secondary level. He then travelled to Syria to study Law.
He had begun a lifelong career of political activism in 1946, aged 13, by forming a secret Kurdish student association. The following year he joined the nationalist Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), and was still a teenager when he was elected to the KDP’s central committee. His ambitions to become a doctor were thwarted by the Hashemite monarchy because of his record as a student dissident.
In 1956, Talabani was obliged to go underground to escape arrest for his activities as founder of the Kurdistan Student Union. With the overthrow of the monarchy in Iraq in 1958, he resumed his studies and also embarked on a journalistic career.
After graduating in 1959, he did national service in the Iraqi artillery.
Within two years, however, he was putting his military training to use against the government in Baghdad, commanding rebel Kurdish units in an uprising in 1961. It was a separatist movement that would last 14 years.
When the KDP split in 1964, Talabani was part of the so-called “political bureau” faction led by his future father-in-law, the party ideologue Ibrahim Ahmad. Its defection left a rump KDP under the leadership of Mustafa Barzani, whose son Massoud Barzani would become Talabani’s chief political rival.
Talabani, who favoured neat suits and ties, was in sharp contrast to the turbaned and gowned Barzani, and his domain had the feel of a family enterprise, with relations and friends holding influential posts in the PUK administered region. For example, Talabani’s wife was influential in control of Kurdsat television, a powerful international voice for Iraqi Kurds.
In 1975, in what became known as “the great defeat”, the Kurdish revolt collapsed after losing support from Iran and America. During the political crisis that followed, Talabani seized the moment to create a new force for resistance, founding the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Based in Sulaymaniyah, it drew its supporters from the urban population; many were radicals, and a year after its foundation the PUK started an armed campaign against the regime in Baghdad, calling on a militia, or peshmerga, of up to 20,000 irregulars.
During the 1980-88 IranIraq war, the PUK’s allegiances alternated between Baghdad and Tehran. Talabani was able to switch sides and reform alliances with dazzling speed. Meanwhile the Talabani-Barzani, or PUK-KDP, rivalry, became the dominant factor in Kurdish politics.
By 1987, Talabani and Barzani were in alliance with Iran, and in March 1988 they allowed the Iranian army to enter Kurdish territories near the town of Halabja. The Iraqi army, under the orders of Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as Chemical Ali, responded with a chemical weapons attack that killed some 6,000 Kurdish villagers. Fearing for his life, Talabani fled to Iran.
Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Talabani and Barzani united once again against Saddam, but again the Iraqi army crushed Kurdish resistance. Fearing a repeat of Halabja, more than two million civilians fled from their homes towards Turkey. It was to mark the low point of Kurdish fortunes.
For once Saddam Hussein’s forces had been driven from Kuwait, the United Nations passed a resolution establishing a “No Fly Zone” over the north of Iraq, severely limiting Baghdad’s influence in Iraqi Kurdistan. In effect, an autonomous Kurdish zone had been created.
This was formalised by elections in 1992, when a Kurdish regional government was established in northern Iraq. Talabani’s PUK and Barzani’s KDP shared equal numbers of seats in the regional parliament, declaring themselves in favour of a federal system that would respect Iraq’s territorial integrity.
Both parties joined the Iraqi National Congress (INC), an umbrella organisation for opposition groups. Under the protection of American air patrols, Iraqi Kurdistan began to rebound economically.
But political cooperation remained an elusive goal, and the post-Gulf War honeymoon period did not last, as the two Kurdish leaders’ attempts to build a stable government in northern Iraq were frustrated by mistrust and rivalry.
Tensions erupted into fratricidal war in 1994, with Barzani supported by Turkey and Talabani by Iran — the latest move in his lengthy “on-off” relationship with Tehran. It took four years of patient negotiation by America before, in September 1998, Talabani and Barzani signed a peace agreement.
The accord was further cemented in October 2002, when the regional parliament reconvened in a session attended by both parties. Talabani proposed a law prohibiting inter-Kurdish fighting. By then, however, both parties were united by the pursuit of a wider, long-awaited, goal — the toppling of Saddam. Following the terror attacks of September 11, Talabani had offered his sympathy to the American victims. This was soon followed by an open invitation to the US to mount an invasion of Iraq from Kurdish territory.
In the event the main thrust of the invasion in 2003 came from the south, as Turkey refused to allow American forces to mount operations from its bases. But victory was swift none the less, and peshmerga forces took up positions on the streets of Kirkuk despite a previous agreement with America not to take the city regarded by many Kurds as their true capital.
US sensitivity on the issue was motivated by concerns from Turkey, which opposed Kurdish control over Mosul and Kirkuk because it feared Talabani would seek an independent state and stir similar aspirations among Turkey’s large Kurdish minority. Adding the two cities and the vast oilfields of that area to a Kurdish region could make an independent Kurdistan viable.
Although his fighters entered Kirkuk and liberated the city, Talabani declared that his forces would withdraw as soon as American troops replaced them. “The city of Kirkuk will be in the hands of American and coalition forces,” he said. “It will be part of Iraq, the new Iraq, the new, democratic, federative Iraq.”
Nevertheless, PUK supporters were soon replacing portraits of Saddam with those of Talabani, and many observers believed the minimum Kurdish requirement would be to extend its territory to include the district of Kirkuk. Talabani was heard calling Kirkuk the “Jerusalem of Kurdistan”. In the end, however, he exchanged leadership of a separatist region for the presidency of a battered nation.
For by April 2005, when Talabani was elected, coalition forces were still attempting to establish a semblance of peace and order in the country.
Within a year, cities, towns and even streets were divided into Shia and Sunni areas, as Iraq hurtled towards what appeared to be all-out civil war; only the Kurdish north felt reasonably safe.
But, slowly, Iraq began to emerge from the most perilous depths of violence.
Talabani was opposed to Islamic rule, even pointing out that the country’s social traditions allowed sexual equality and the consumption of alcohol. Out of humane principles, he would not sign Saddam’s death warrant. Re-elected in 2006 under the country’s new constitution, his tenure became a measure of the democratic progress he had long advocated.
He spent most of the final two years of his presidency under medical treatment in Germany, and in 2014 he was succeeded by his friend, the veteran Kurdish politician Fuad Masu, who with his new prime minister Haider al-Abadi would have to contend with the growing menace of Isil.
Jalal Talabani is survived by his wife Hirow Ibrahim Ahmed, with whom he had two sons.