Kur­dish rebel turned Iraq’s pres­i­dent

Taranaki Daily News - - Obituaries -

Jalal Tal­a­bani: Iraqi politi­cian: b Novem­ber 12, 1933; m Hirow Ibrahim Ahmed; 2s; d Ber­lin, Oc­to­ber 3, 2017, aged 83

Jalal Tal­a­bani 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 im­pact in post­war 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 ami­able, al­most pa­ter­nal­is­tic pres­ence with the nick­name ‘‘Mam’’ (Un­cle) Jalal. But in the years af­ter 2003 he was ac­cepted far be­yond the Kur­dish com­mu­nity. Jalal Tal­a­bani was born in 1933 in the vil­lage of Kelkan in Iraqi Kur­dis­tan, and went to high school in Kirkuk. He then trav­elled to Syria to study law.

He had be­gun a life­long ca­reer of po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism at 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 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 went un­der­ground to es­cape ar­rest as founder of the Kur­dis­tan Stu­dent Union.

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 in the decades to come.

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.

In 1975 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). 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 Iran-Iraq

war, the PUK’s al­le­giances al­ter­nated be­tween Bagh­dad and Tehran. Tal­a­bani was able to switch sides and re­form al­liances with daz­zling speed.

Fol­low­ing the Iraqi in­va­sion of Kuwait in 1990, Tal­a­bani and Barzani united once again against Sad­dam, but again the Iraqi army crushed Kur­dish re­sis­tance. 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.

But po­lit­i­cal co­op­er­a­tion re­mained an elu­sive goal, and the post-Gulf War hon­ey­moon pe­riod did not last.

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.By 2002, how­ever, both par­ties were united by the pur­suit of a wider 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 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.

Although his fight­ers en­tered Kirkuk and lib­er­ated the city, Tal­a­bani de­clared that his forces would with­draw as soon as Amer­i­can troops re­placed them.

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.

As a mod­er­ate, Tal­a­bani was op­posed to Is­lamic rule, even point­ing out that the coun­try’s so­cial tra­di­tions al­lowed sex­ual equal­ity and the con­sump­tion of al­co­hol. For hu­man­i­tar­ian rea­sons he would not sign Sad­dam’s death war­rant. Re-elected in 2006 and again in 2010, 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.

– Tele­graph Group

Jalal Tal­a­bani, the armed rebel be­came a con­cil­ia­tor in power.

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