Jalal Tal­a­bani

A vet­eran of the Kur­dish strug­gle for in­de­pen­dence who was the first non-Arab president of Iraq

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Death & Obituaries -

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.

RE­SPECTED: Tal­a­bani

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