Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s president and leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, remains in a Berlin hospital some 16 months after suffering a stroke in Baghdad. Rumors have been rife about his condition, but it seems his powers of communication are limited. “During September’s elections [for the regional Iraqi Kurdish parliament], the PUK used his name to drum up support,” a leading Kurdish official told me, “but if they could have shown him on video for 10 seconds, for sure they would have.”
Known widely as “Mam Jalal” (“Mam” being maternal uncle), Talabani has been active in Kurdish politics for half a century. Born in 1933, he went to school in Koysanjak, and he told me in an interview for BBC radio in 1995 of the town’s influence on his direction in life.
“I learned politics in Koysanjak, a very active town,” Talabani said. “It was the town of Hajji Qadir Koyi, the first Kurdish nationalist poet.” Koyi had advocated Kurdish unity and independence as early as the 1880s, and his criticisms of traditional leaders probably shaped Talabani’s later disquiet with Mullah Mustafa Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and his own decision to establish the PUK in 1975 as a “modern” political party.
Talabani also told me in that interview that he had intended to retire from active politics in his 60s – he was 61 at the time – and write his memoirs. And yet the establishment of de facto Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq in the 1990s, civil war with the KDP in 1994-1997, the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and Talabani’s elevation to the presidency of Iraq in 2005 all helped keep him busy in politics until his stroke in December 2012.
It is unclear whether his incapacity will give Talabani the opportunity to write his memoirs or precludes him ever writing them. Certainly, future historians of both Kurdistan and Iraq would look eagerly for his account, picking out both overall themes and colorful details.
First and foremost, Talabani has been a Kurdish nationalist, but given the long hostility of governments in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria to Kurdish autonomy, the options facing have often been unpleasant.
Rivalry with the KDP, led since 1979 by Massoud Barzani, Mullah Mustapha’s son, has been intense. During periods of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, both the PUK and KDP allied with Iran, which contributed to the severity of Saddam’s Hussein repression in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1988-1990, when around 180,000 Kurds were killed. In fighting with the KDP in 1994-1997, in which 3,000 civilians died, Talabani took assistance from Iran and Barzani from Saddam.
After U.S.-led forces drove Saddam from Kuwait in 1991, Talabani went to Baghdad for talks and was later embarrassed by pictures of him kissing the Iraqi dictator. But the U.S. imposition of a no-fly zone enabled the Kurds to carve out a de facto autonomy, a move consolidated after 2003 into the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Talabani would argue the KRG has proved an example both to all Kurds and to governments of peaceful development and the establishment of Kurdish rights within existing international borders. Relative economic prosperity has come to Iraqi Kurdistan, and the two new international airports there have offered gateways to the world that the Kurds previously lacked. Education is in the Kurdish language, and there has been a renaissance of arts and culture.
Talabani would no doubt present his life as a consistent struggle for Kurdish rights through a secular political party seeking a democratic system. This was the rationale for splitting with Mullah Mustafa in the 1960s and setting up the PUK.
But Kurdish Iraq has also been dogged with allegations of corrupt business dealings. These have surrounded not just the Barzani family, which holds many senior positions, but PUK leaders as well as Talabani’s sons and brother-in-law.
Such concern was one reason why in 2009 Nawsherwan Mustapha, one of the PUK’s founders, established Goran, or “Change,” a group pledged to shake up the administration and end favoritism. In September’s election for the Kurdish regional parliament, Goran overtook the PUK in both seats and votes, showing the resonance of its message especially with younger people in previous PUK strongholds. With 18 percent of all votes, the PUK was only 2 percent ahead of the total of Islamic parties while the KDP was the most popular party with 38 percent.
Talabani has often expressed annoyance with critics, and in an interview in Iraq in July 2003, he told me “90 percent” of independent Kurdish newspaper Hawlati was “fabricated lies,” a line that Hawlati grabbed for its own headline.
But it would be hard to dispute that Iraqi Kurdistan has enjoyed greater freedom of expression than most of the region. Despite problems with the authorities, including the fining of one editor after Talabani brought a legal suit, Hawlati has continued to publish, flourish and demand greater transparency. Likewise, the PUK acknowledged and accepted last year’s election results.
Sarhang Hamasaeed, a Kurdish senior project manager at the U.S. Institute for Peace, recently suggested that the brutality used against the Iraqi Kurds, bordering on genocide, could have fostered radicalism and resentment against other ethnic groups. “Yet, the Kurds have remained a tolerant nation,” he said, “with their sense of identity strengthened while appreciating peace more.” It would be churlish to deny that Jalal Talabani deserves a share of the credit.
Gareth Smyth has covered the Middle East since 1992, when he first reported from Iraqi Kurdistan, and later covered the Iraq war and its aftermath for The Financial Times (2003-2005). He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.