The Next President of Iraq?

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 in 1933, 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.

When negotiations 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.

"We 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."

Talabani’s 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 Khomeini against Hussein. His PUK fighters took part in joint missions with the Iranian military, and he became an archenemy of the regime in Baghdad.

In 1988, Hussein 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 182,000.

Many survivors remember officers in Hussein’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."

Nuri Abdel-Rahman 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 candles."

On March 19, 1988, the Iraqi Army issued a communiqué 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."

Some 5,000 Kurdish civilians died on Mar. 16 of that year when Hussein 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 Kirkuk and 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 U.S., 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 Hussein, 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 U.S. President George Bush Sr.’s call to rise up against Hussein and launched attacks throughout the region.

The revolt failed when Bush withdrew U.S. support, but it eventually led to the establishment of a Kurdish autonomous region in the north, protected by a U.S.-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 Hussein’s Kurdish supporters. Barzani called directly on the Iraqi army, which ejected the PUK from the regional capital, Arbil.

Then, in 2003, with George W. Bush in charge in Washington, Talabani’s alliance with the U.S. intensified. When the U.S. military invaded Iraq, PUK forces fought alongside U.S. 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 frontrunner in the race for president of Iraq. A unified Kurdish slate came in second in the voting during the country’s Jan. 30 elections and Talabani has made a proposal to the victorious Shi’ite slate, together with his rival Barzani.

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 United States 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 direction.

(Inter Press Service)