|Talabani stakes his claim for
Analysis by Aaron
ARBIL, Iraq - Fresh from their
success at the polls, Iraq's two main Kurdish
political parties have put forward 72-year-old
Jalal Talabani as their candidate for the
presidency of Iraq. If he succeeds in winning the
post, it will be a fitting coda to one of Iraq's
most colorful careers.
Born into a
prominent Kurdish family in1933, Talabani didn't
waste much time getting into politics. After
obtaining a law degree in Baghdad, he threw
himself into the movement for Kurdish autonomy. He
served on the politburo of the movement's main
organization, the Kurdistan Democratic Party
(KDP), and when the Ba'ath Party came to power in
a coup in 1963, he served on the KDP's negotiating
team with the regime.
didn't go well, the founder of the KDP, Mullah
Mustafa Barzani, opted to keep fighting. Talabani
disagreed. He called Barzani "tribal, feudal and
reactionary" and formed his own splinter group,
taking part of the group's politburo with him. The
split got so bad that in 1966, Talabani launched
an armed assault on Barzani's KDP, with the help
of the Iraqi army. It would be the first of
Talabani's many short-term alliances.
Kurds are surrounded by enemies in Turkey, Syria,
Iran and Iraq," says poet and human-rights
activist Farhad Pirbal. "Sometimes our leaders go
crazy and they think that by making an agreement
with one of these leaders they can help themselves
and the Kurdish cause."
alliance with the Ba'ath Party didn't last long.
He returned to the Kurdish nationalist movement as
the KDP's representative in Damascus, but when
Barzani's revolt failed in 1975, Talabani split
again - this time forming a new group called the
Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which came to
control much of Kurdish northeastern Iraq along
the Iranian border.
In 1978, he fought
another round of battles with Barzani, but his
main confrontation would come in the 1980s, when
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded Iran. This
time Talabani threw in his lot with Iranian leader
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni against Saddam. His PUK
fighters took part in joint missions with the
Iranian military, and he became an arch-enemy of
the regime in Baghdad.
In 1988, Saddam
launched al-Anfal, a massive campaign of ethnic
cleansing, depopulating thousands of Kurdish
villages where support for Talabani was strong. As
part of the Anfal, tens of thousands of Kurdish
civilians were brought to desert camps in southern
Iraq while others were simply shot and buried in
hastily dug trenches near Kirkuk. At least 50,000
were killed. Kurdish politicians say the number is
Many survivors remember officers
in Saddam's army making specific reference to
Talabani during their detention. "They told us
that we are bringing you here for dying because
you follow Jalal Talabani," relates Hasna Ali
Mohammed, an elderly woman who was sent to a
desert detention facility near Samawa, where she
says that seven to eight prisoners died daily.
"What could we do? We had to stay there with no
food and no water."
Mohammed, a 63-year-old night watchman, tells a
similar story. "During the dark nights, we were
pressed against each other like sardines and we
would ask [the Iraqi military captors] 'for God's
sake, at least provide us with some candles to
have light'." He says the Ba'athists responded:
"Go and tell Jalal Talabani to send you some
On March 19, 1988, the Iraqi
army issued a communique after it attacked the
city of Halabjah, which had been held jointly by
the Iranian army and the PUK. "Our forces attacked
the headquarters of the rebellion led by the
traitor Jalal Talabani, agent of the Iranian
regime, the enemy of the Arabs and Kurds," it
read. "Our people have rejected from their ranks
all traitors who sold themselves cheaply to the
covetous foreign enemy."
Kurdish civilians died on March 16 of that year
when Saddam doused Halabjah with chemical weapons.
Through all this the West stood by and watched.
"It was because they were thinking about Iran,"
says Aref Korbani, a journalist at the PUK's
television station in Kirkukand and an expert on
the Anfal campaign.
"They were thinking
that Iran would be powerful and they were worried
that there would be a strong, powerful Islamic
state in the region. The US, Britain, Germany and
so many other countries filled Iraq with weapons
to help destroy Iran."
But when Iraq
invaded and occupied Kuwait a few years later,
geopolitical calculations changed, and so did
Talabani's. The United States and Britain began
supporting Kurdish leaders as a way of containing
Saddam, and Talabani played his part.
After the 1991 Gulf War, Talabani's PUK,
along with his old rivals in the PDK (now led by
Mullah Barzani's son, Masoud Barzani), responded
to then US president George Bush, Sr's call to
rise up against Saddam and launched attacks
throughout the region. The revolt failed when Bush
withdrew US support, but it eventually led to the
establishment of a Kurdish autonomous region in
the north, protected by a US-British no-fly zone.
Even then, the situation was difficult.
From 1994 until 1998, Talabani's PUK and Barzani's
KDP fought a civil war for control of all of Iraqi
Kurdistan. Before the conflict was over, both
sides called in Ba'athists, and Talabani called on
Saddam's Kurdish supporters. Barzani called
directly on the Iraqi army, which ejected the PUK
from the regional capital, Arbil.
2003, with George W Bush in charge in Washington,
Talabani's alliance with the US intensified. When
the US military invaded Iraq, PUK forces fought
alongside US soldiers and kicked the Iraqi army
out of the country's northern oil-rich city
Kirkuk. Today, the PUK is the most powerful force
in the city.
Now, at age 72, Jalal
Talabani is a front-runner in the race for
president of Iraq. A unified Kurdish slate came in
second in the voting during the country's January
30 elections and Talabani has made a proposal to
the victorious Shi'ite slate, together with his
Either Jalal Talabani will
go to Baghdad and become president or prime
minister of Iraq, or the Kurds won't join the
government. Under this agreement, Barzani would
become the president of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Talabani's alliance with the US has so far
proved successful for both the aging leader and
the Kurdish people. But as history demonstrates,
especially in the mountains of northern Iraq,
political winds have a tendency to change
(With additional reporting by
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