An Oppressed People: Kurdish President of Iraq

Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish nationalist who went on to become the first non-Arab head of modern Iraq, has a storied history among his followers as a revolutionary fighter and diplomat.

Widely referred to affectionately in the Kurdish parts of northern Iraq as mam, or uncle, Talabani has been a consistent figure in Iraqi politics for the last 40 years.

After completing a law degree in 1959, he joined the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, which revolted against the Baghdad government in 1961 in a bid to acquire independence from Iraq.

When the insurgency was quelled in 1975, as Saddam Hussein and his Arab nationalist Baathist party consolidated power in Baghdad, Talabani wanted to keep going.

He split with the then-dominant Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) to form the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which he still heads.

In the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war, the PUK took Tehran’s side in an effort to pressure Saddam. Whenever times have gotten tough – such as in 1988, when chemical weapons were used against the Kurds – Talabani has sought refuge in Iran and occasionally in Syria.

The doomed Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 weakened Baghdad and Talabani moved quickly, playing a key role in a Kurdish uprising in northern Iraq, which – combined with the no-fly zone imposed by foreign powers – led to the return of hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees.

Afterward, during a period of brief reconciliation with the KDP, he was elected to lead the Kurdish areas along with Massoud Barzani, who is the current president of the autonomous northern Kurdish region.

A series of bitter disagreements followed, however, leading to a civil war among Kurdish factions. But the two leaders were eventually reconciled four years later, in 1998, and the union was finalized with United States assistance after Saddam was ousted.

That deal enabled the Kurds to seize the presidency of Iraq for the first time, when Talabani was sworn into the job in 2005.

Talabani was born in the northern province of Irbil in 1933 to an influential and historically important family. He is a polyglot who speaks several languages fluently, including Arabic, English Kurdish and Persian.

Monsters and Critics

November 11, 2010



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