Kurdish Leader. Former Iraqi President Was 83 : Parallels : NPR
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In fractured, postwar Iraq, Jalal Talabani — who died Tuesday in a German hospital at age 83 — had the ability to solve some of the country’s most serious problems over lunch.
As a skilled politician with a history of inclusiveness and a reservoir of charm, when he invited leaders from feuding factions, they came and they talked to each other. Not because he was president, but because he was “Mam Jalal” — the Kurdish moniker meaning “uncle” that was given to him as a boy.
“Mam Jalal’s presence and influence in Baghdad didn’t stem from the authority of the president … He could bring people together,” Najmaldeen Karim, the Kurdish governor of Kirkuk, told me recently.
In 2003, Saddam Hussein had been toppled. Not by the Kurdish fighters Talabani had led against Iraqi forces years earlier, as a young Kurdish commander, and not in a 1996 failed coup, in which the CIA had enlisted Talabani to help remove the Iraqi president, but through a full-fledged invasion.
By 2005, two years after Saddam Hussein was removed, Talabani himself was in the presidential palace.
It was a largely ceremonial role, one he held for nine tumultuous years while the country was wracked by sectarian war and political crisis. But Talabani used his considerable charm, bargaining skills and sheer force of will to literally bring to the table Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders who otherwise refused to talk to each other. And he put his own stamp on it — refusing, for example, to sign execution warrants for prisoners sentenced to death.
He remained president — the only non-Arab ever to hold that role — until 2014, two years after suffering a stroke. He never fully recovered.
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In his younger years, Talabani was a Peshmerga, a Kurdish fighter who battled Iraqi forces. He founded the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two main Kurdish political parties, in 1975.
I first met Talabani in the Kurdistan region in the 1990s. My final interview with him, in 2012, for al-Jazeera English, was one of the last interviews he gave. We met at the huge, new, gleaming white political offices he optimistically had built in Irbil, on the road to Kirkuk — the disputed city that Kurds think of as a future Kurdish capitol.
I asked him whether after all that struggle, the new Iraq he had worked so hard to create was what he thought it would be.
“I think the collapse of the leadership was the beginning of the new Iraq — instead of the dictatorship we had, we have a democratic system … this kind of freedom Iraqis were thirsty to have,” he said.
He acknowledged the country needed more security and more unity, but he seemed genuinely optimistic that this new Iraq, still in the making, would turn out to be far better than the old one.
For some, including the Kurds, it was in fact much better.
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Their history in Iraq included Saddam’s 1988 Anfal campaign, which killed more than 100,000 Kurds and destroyed thousands of villages. Thousands of civilians were killed with chemical weapons in Hallabjah.
After the U.S. drove Saddam’s forces out of neighboring Kuwait during the first Gulf War in 1991, Kurds rose up against the Iraqi government. Along with Shiites in the south, the Kurds were encouraged by the United States. The U.S. never came up with the air cover Talabani said it promised, and Saddam’s forces moved in, while hundreds of thousands of Kurds tried to flee over the mountains in winter.
To stop Iraqi planes from further attacking the Kurds, the U.S., Britain and France established a no-fly zone. It was a decision that allowed the Kurds to break away from Iraqi control and build a region beyond the reach of Saddam’s forces, but Baghdad punished the Kurds by cutting off trade and fuel. The Kurdistan region also was included in a crippling U.N. embargo against Iraq.