Kurdish rebel turned Iraq’s president
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.