Jalal Talabani, unifying former president of Iraq, dies at 83

 In World
Former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, one of the country’s most powerful and unifying leaders and a man who spent much of his life fighting for the cause of the Kurds of northern Iraq, died Oct. 3 at a hospital in Berlin. He was 83.

His death was confirmed by Sadi Ahmed Pira, a spokesman for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Mr. Talabani’s political party. He had long struggled with his health and was often treated abroad. In 2008, he underwent heart surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. He suffered a stroke in 2012 and stepped down as president in 2014.

A good-humored, portly man with a soft smile and a mustache, Mr. Talabani was nonetheless a pragmatic and savvy political operator who knew when to play down his Kurdish nationalism. He had been a frequent emissary to world capitals for the Kurdish people before and after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.

He was popularly known as Mam Jalal, Kurdish for Uncle Jalal, a nickname ascribed to him in his youth because of his seriousness and that later reflected the affection of his supporters and even some political rivals.

Mr. Talabani’s death came just days after the semiautonomous Kurdish region held a landmark referendum on whether to declare independence from Iraq. The yes vote passed by an overwhelming margin — marking a step toward a goal sought by millions of Kurds for a century or more — but it also set off the worst feud between Iraq’s central government and the Kurds since the fall of Hussein and fears that the crisis could descend into war.

Many in Iraq have wondered whether the crisis would have occurred if Mr. Talabani had still been active in politics, or if he might have been able to defuse it.

As a Kurd, Mr. Talabani was the first non-Arab president of an Arab nation. Although his office was largely ceremonial, he exerted great influence over the Iraqi political landscape.

He was able to bring Iraq’s warring factions to the negotiating table — and keep them there amid violent sectarian conflict from 2005 to 2007. He was credited with preventing the disintegration of the country’s fragile national unity government in the wake of the U.S.-led occupation.

“His biggest victory, and vindication, was to ascend to the presidency of Iraq, succeeding a dictator who had worked long and hard to eradicate the Kurdish national movement,” said Joost R. Hiltermann, a Middle East expert with the International Crisis Group, a conflict prevention organization.

“Astoundingly, as president of Iraq, Talabani worked hard not to be seen as an advocate of the Kurds but to represent Iraqis, and to a large extent he succeeded,” Hiltermann said. “Time and again he intervened and mediated in political crises, and each time, he managed to lower the temperature, helped to a great extent by his jocular and avuncular personality.”

In the years before his death, Mr. Talabani tried to mediate a deepening political crisis among Iraq’s three main groups — Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.

As his health deteriorated, he fell from public view, and Baghdad and the semiautonomous Kurdish region hurtled toward a political impasse over revenue sharing, oil and borders. His poor health kept him out of the debate over the independence referendum, which was opposed by Iraq’s central government, the United States, Iran and Turkey.

Mr. Talabani was not without his autocratic tendencies, Hiltermann said, and failed to provide for a stable transition to new leadership.

Jalal Talabani was born Nov. 12, 1933, in Kelkan, in the Iraqi Kurdistan region. He showed an early revolutionary streak, founding the underground Kurdish Student Union when he was 13. The next year, he joined the newly formed Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP); by 18, he was a member of the party’s central committees, often forced to go into hiding because of his fight for Kurdish rights.

Nevertheless, Mr. Talabani managed to earn a law degree from the University of Baghdad in 1959. But law was his second choice — after medicine.

“I was not accepted at the College of Medicine because I did not have the so-called good-behavior certificate, which used to be issued by the security services known as the ‘criminal investigations department,’ ” Mr. Talabani told the Arab daily al-Sharq al-Awsat in 2009.

“I had been arrested several times, and even when I was in Kirkuk during my secondary education, I was arrested twice,” he said. “I was always under observation by the secret police.”

By 1961, he began to focus on the cause of Kurdish resistance against the Iraqi government. Mr. Talabani was a battlefront commander and led separatist movements in several Kurdish regions. When not on the front lines, he traveled on diplomatic missions, becoming the face of Kurdish resistance to Europeans and across the Middle East.

“You have to judge political objectives according to realistic expectations,” Mr. Talabani told the Los Angeles Times in 1991. “We don’t want to be like the Palestinians and ask for the impossible. If there were a democratic government in Iraq, we would be happy to be Iraqis.”

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