Iraq's first non-Arab president, Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, was known for his pragmatism and his attempts to build bridges between Iraq's warring factions at the height of tensions between different parties.

Talabani spent his tenure as president (2005-2014)  trying to build bridges between Iraq's warring factions at the height of tensions between the Sunni and Shia communities.
Talabani spent his tenure as president (2005-2014) trying to build bridges between Iraq's warring factions at the height of tensions between the Sunni and Shia communities. (Reuters)

The first non-Arab to serve as Iraq’s president as well as founder and head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Jalal Talabani, died on Tuesday in Berlin, aged 84. 

Known as one of the foremost leaders in Kurdish politics, his death came days after Kurds voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence from Iraq in a referendum.

This sent tensions spiralling with the central government in Baghdad and with Iraq's neighbors, including Turkey and Iran, who fear similar separatist sentiment on their soil.

The veteran Kurdish leader was elected by Iraq's parliament to the presidency in 2005, two years after the US invasion that toppled his sworn enemy Saddam Hussein. As he stepped into office in 2005 to become Iraq's first Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani made a symbolic call for unity. 

I am casting off my Kurdish clothes and wearing Iraqi ones instead. You must accept that.

Jalal Talabani

Although the position was primarily a ceremonial role, Talabani spent his tenure trying to build bridges between Iraq's warring factions at the height of tensions between the Sunni and Shia communities. 

Widely known as "Mam [Uncle] Jalal", Talabani performed a delicate balancing act in a fraught region and was seen as being close to both the United States and its rival Iran. 

Barzani senior’s protégé

Talabani long dominated Kurdish political life along with the current leader of the Kurdish Regional Government, Masoud Barzani. 

Born in 1933 in the village of Kalkan in the mountains, he completed his high school education in Erbil and Kirkuk. He joined the Kurdish political movement in his teens in the early 1950s. 

Talabani joined the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the main Kurdish political force at the time, which was trying to carve out an autonomous territory for Iraq's Kurds. It was headed by Mustafa Barzani, Masoud's father. Under Mustafa's influence, Talabani became the founding president of the Kurdistan Students Union, associated with KDP. 

Talabani joined the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which was headed by Mustafa Barzani (pictured above). Under Barzani’s influence, Talabani became the founding president of the Kurdistan Students Union, associated with KDP.
Talabani joined the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which was headed by Mustafa Barzani (pictured above). Under Barzani’s influence, Talabani became the founding president of the Kurdistan Students Union, associated with KDP. (AP)

In the late 1950s, Mustafa Barzani sent Talabani to Baghdad University to study law, after which he served a stint in the army. 

Talabani’s split from the KDP

A charismatic and influential figure in the KDP, Talabani joined the Barzani-led Kurdish uprising against the Iraqi government in 1961, where he served various leadership posts. 

Although they worked together in the uprising, Talabani and Barzani had significant ideological differences that became more apparent in the 1960s. The leftist-nationalist-leaning Talabani and the more conservative traditionalist-tribalist-leaning Barzani and their followers were caught in a struggle within the KDP. 

The intra-party rivalry further escalated in 1964, when Talabani signed a ceasefire deal with Baghdad without informing the party, as explained by Michael M Gunter in his article about the KDP-PUK conflict. 

Well-known for his political flexibility and pragmatism, Talabani was also ready to work with all partners he saw as beneficial for the Kurdish cause. Talabani then  joined a KDP splinter faction within the party.

When the revolt against Baghdad collapsed in 1975, Talabani broke off from the KDP to form the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK. The Peshmerga army also split at this time, and some joined Talabani, while others remained with the KDP.

Even though the PUK was formed in Iraq, it has a strong connection with Iran. 

Peshmergas of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) progress towards Sulaymaniyah, northern Iraq, the stronghold of rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in 1996. The capture of the city by the Baghdad-backed KDP forces sent thousands of refugees on the road towards Iran.
Peshmergas of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) progress towards Sulaymaniyah, northern Iraq, the stronghold of rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in 1996. The capture of the city by the Baghdad-backed KDP forces sent thousands of refugees on the road towards Iran. (AP)

Ibrahim Ahmed, an influential Kurdish leftist leader who initially headed the Iraqi branch of the Iranian KDP worked closely with Talabani, and later became his father-in-law. 

His influence in the PUK can be seen in its relationship with neighbor Iran: unlike the KDP, the PUK has had traditionally good ties with Iran and Iranian-backed Shia groups which are effectively ruling in Baghdad. 

To this day, Kurdish politics in northern Iraq remains dominated by the two families: the Barzanis in Erbil and the Talabanis in Sulaimaniyah.

Steps towards autonomy in northern Iraq

In 1976, Talabani again took up arms against Saddam Hussein, then the prime minister of Iraq, and eventually joined forces with Iran in the Iran-Iraq war. A renewed uprising in the 1980s against the Saddam regime sparked the notorious Anfal campaign of 1988 in which the army razed hundreds of Kurdish villages and gassed thousands of people.

Iraq's Kurds took their first steps toward autonomy in the early 1990s under the protection of a US-enforced no-fly-zone aimed at halting Saddam's killings. But the Kurds quickly fell into infighting. Pitched battles between forces loyal to Barzani and those who sided with Talabani killed thousands and only subsided when Barzani called on Saddam's army to help him push back Talabani's men.

This rivalry between Talabani and the Barzani, which degenerated into all-out war in 1993, finally led to a rapprochement pushed forward by the US in 2002, when it became clear that Washington intended to topple Saddam.

Ascent to presidency

As the US prepared to oust Saddam in the 2003 invasion, Talabani's PUK worked with the CIA.

After Saddam's fall, Talabani and Barzani came together to govern their autonomous region, but ultimately Talabani's high profile and openness to cooperation took him to Baghdad.

Secretary of State James Baker faces reporters before his meeting with various leaders who wanted Saddam Hussein ousted from power. They were embraced by the Bush administration. The leaders (from left to right): Masoud Barzani, head of the KDP; Mohammed Bahir al Eloom, a Shia cleric; Baker; Arif Abdulrazak, an Arab Sunni and Jalal Talabani, head of the PUK.
Secretary of State James Baker faces reporters before his meeting with various leaders who wanted Saddam Hussein ousted from power. They were embraced by the Bush administration. The leaders (from left to right): Masoud Barzani, head of the KDP; Mohammed Bahir al Eloom, a Shia cleric; Baker; Arif Abdulrazak, an Arab Sunni and Jalal Talabani, head of the PUK. (AP)

Knowing that an independent Kurdish state was not likely, Talabani chose “to pursue reality over dreams” and pushed for an autonomous region with the support of the US. 

He was chosen by parliament as interim president in April 2005. A year later, parliament made him full president under the new constitution, re-electing him to a second four-year term in 2010.

Talabani's ascension left Barzani to preside over the Kurdish government alone, an irony that Talabani wryly noted in February 2005. "He personally prefers that I be in Baghdad and he be in Kurdistan," Talabani said.

In Baghdad, Talabani established himself as the voice of the Kurds and was a skilled player in Iraq's power politics.

Sunni Arabs remained suspicious of Talabani, pointing to his Iranian ties. Talabani also angered many Iraqis in 2011 when he described Kirkuk, a multi-ethnic city claimed by the Kurds and the central government, as a Kurdish Jerusalem.

Then-president Jalal Talabani, right, sits alongside Kurdish regional President Masoud Barzani at a meeting in Erbil in 2009.  Kurdish politics in Iraq are dominated by the two families: the Barzanis in Erbil and the Talabanis in Sulaimaniyah. (AP Archives)
Then-president Jalal Talabani, right, sits alongside Kurdish regional President Masoud Barzani at a meeting in Erbil in 2009. Kurdish politics in Iraq are dominated by the two families: the Barzanis in Erbil and the Talabanis in Sulaimaniyah. (AP Archives) (AP)

Still, Talabani sought to cast himself as being above the fray, using the largely ceremonial powers of his post to try to take the edge off conflicts that flared among the country's factions. 

His political manoeuvring for what he saw as the Kurdish cause could be seen in various contexts; he was a key figure in the initial talks between the Turkish state and the PKK in 1992, where he served as a contact between PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and Turkish president Turgut Ozal, with whom Talabani had close ties. 

He was also a critic of the PKK, and urged them to lay down their arms and push for political solutions with the Turkish state.

Deteriorating health

While he struggled to bring together Iraq's disparate factions, the married father-of-two also battled a string of health problems. 

In August 2008, he underwent successful heart surgery in the United States.

And in 2012, he suffered several strokes and finally was flown to Germany for treatment.

With his departure from political life, Iraq lost one of its few brakes on the divisions among its rival factions; and Barzani began dealing with Baghdad directly on behalf of Iraq's Kurds.

Talabani eventually returned to Iraq in July 2014, just as Daesh seized control of much of the country. With the end of his presidential term, he was replaced by his ally Fuad Masum.

Disagreements between Baghdad and the Kurdish region over the sharing of oil wealth and the fate of Kirkuk and other disputed areas simmered for years. But those divisions went largely unaddressed as Iraqi and Kurdish forces battled Daesh. 

Barzani, who had already capitalised on a split in Talabani's political party years earlier, saw his power grow as the US-led coalition rushed military aid to his forces to help them battle Daesh. He later spearheaded the independence referendum, which many of his critics saw as a bid to extend his rule.

Talabani did not express his opinion on the referendum, and his supporters were divided on it. In the end, PUK supported the "yes" vote.

The referendum in support of independence in the KRG received an overwhelming
The referendum in support of independence in the KRG received an overwhelming "yes" vote in September. (Reuters)

The referendum became yet another area where the power struggle between the PUK and the KDP played out. The referendum took place in territories controlled by the KRG, as well as disputed areas such as oil-rich Kirkuk, which is traditionally dominated by the PUK. The vote was boycotted by Turkmen and Arabs in the province. Some Kurdish parties also had opposed the vote, but then pushed for a “yes” vote ahead of the referendum. 

The referendum vote is not expected to lead to a Kurdish state anytime soon and has further isolated the small land-locked region. Iraq and its neighbours have rejected the vote, and Baghdad has banned international flights to the semi-autonomous Kurdish region and threatened to take control of its borders.

Talabani's death stands as a reminder of how his experiment in unity has frayed nearly to the point of unravelling.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies