Jalal Talabani’s Enduring Struggle

Pesh merga troops near an image of Jalal Talabani, a Kurd and former Iraqi president, in 2014. Credit Andrea Bruce for The New York Times
Pesh merga troops near an image of Jalal Talabani, a Kurd and former Iraqi president, in 2014. Credit Andrea Bruce for The New York Times

Jalal Talabani, the former Iraqi president who died on Tuesday, was an outsize figure in Middle East politics. A fierce Kurdish nationalist, he was the first democratically elected head of state in a land with a history going back to the dawn of civilization. Kurds will remember him as a giant of their national struggle.

Mr. Talabani, elected president in the aftermath of the downfall of Saddam Hussein, became America’s favorite Iraqi. With little use for official protocol, he greeted American visitors with hugs and kisses, even in the most formal of settings. His easygoing style and wry sense of humor helped him establish a rapport with President George W. Bush and with the Obama administration’s point man on Iraq, Vice President Joe Biden.

In Iraq’s post-Hussein Constitution, the position of president is largely ceremonial. The real power lies with the prime minister. While the Kurdistan region secured autonomy under the new Constitution, Baghdad’s failure to carry out key constitutional provisions fueled alienation among the Kurds. Sunnis became even more alienated, shut out from meaningful power-sharing with the Shiite majority and blocked from establishing their own autonomous region. American diplomats often turned to Mr. Talabani to mediate among these groups, which he did with aplomb.

Mr. Talabani’s relationship with the United States wasn’t always so good. I met him in April 1988 when a Kurdish neurosurgeon brought him to my office at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was on his first trip to the United States to call attention to Iraq’s chemical-weapons attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja.

Few people knew about the Kurds and almost no one had heard of Mr. Talabani. He was shunned on that visit by Reagan administration officials, who were seeking to maintain good relations with Saddam Hussein.
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Washington’s opinion of Mr. Hussein changed, of course. In February 1991 at the end of the gulf war, President George H. W. Bush called on the Iraqi people to overthrow the Iraqi dictator. In March, the Shiites and Kurds, expecting United States support, rose up against Baghdad. Shiites gained control of Iraq’s south and the Kurds took much of the north. Mr. Talabani, who had been in Washington when the gulf war ended, returned to Kurdistan and invited me to join him.

When I got to Kurdistan, the Iraqi Army was counterattacking and the rebellion was disintegrating. This didn’t seem to perturb Mr. Talabani. I caught up with him in the Kurdish-held city of Dohuk, where he was discussing the protection of Christian and Yazidi minorities with local leaders. He argued vehemently against the summary execution of Iraqi officials and Kurdish collaborators captured during the uprising.

And even with artillery pounding the city, Mr. Talabani was not deterred from having a good meal. We adjourned to a nearby house where Kurdistan’s entire national cuisine was on the table. Pointing to a large bird, Mr. Talabani asked, “Shall we carve up turkey?” Giving me the leg, he said, “Take the southeast.”

It was a joke he repeated at many meals (southeast Turkey is home to that country’s Kurds). He was unfazed by the incessant artillery attacks. The next morning, we joined tens of thousands of Kurds fleeing the city for the Turkish and Iranian borders.

The United States military eventually established and supported a safe haven for the Kurds that became the nucleus of today’s de facto independent Kurdish state. Mr. Talabani quickly made friends with the American protectors, but the anger he had for Mr. Bush for failing to help stop Mr. Hussein’s troops during the uprising did not abate.

Under United States protection, the Kurdistan Region survived but did not thrive. This was partly because of the United Nations sanctions on Iraq, which applied to Kurdistan even though the region was not under Mr. Hussein’s control.

But Mr. Talabani and Massoud Barzani, another giant of the Kurdish cause, were also to blame. They were unable to make power-sharing arrangements work and fought a civil war from 1994 to 1998 that took thousands of Kurdish lives. As large as both men loom in the modern history of Kurdistan, the civil war is a black mark that many Kurds will not forget.

The prospect of remaking Iraq following the 2003 United States invasion brought Mr. Talabani and Mr. Barzani together in the job of writing a constitution that ensured the continuation of a self-governing Kurdistan and of a prominent Kurdish role in Baghdad. I advised both men in the negotiations, often suggesting ways to resist American pressure to give the federal government in Baghdad more authority. Mr. Talabani, who wanted to accommodate the United States when possible, sometimes bridled at my advice, more than once ribbing me by saying that I was “more Kurdish than the Kurds.”

Mr. Talabani’s jovial style sometimes led foreign diplomats to underestimate his resolve. He had no illusions about the brutality of the Shiite government that replaced Mr. Hussein. He complained about the Shiite death squads that fueled a Sunni-Shiite civil war, sometimes telling me that the Shiite government was not so different from the Hussein regime.

On Sept. 25, Kurdistan held a referendum to leave Iraq. Ninety-three percent of voters chose independence. Baghdad responded by closing Kurdistan’s airports and threatening to send troops to the border.

There is no long-term solution that can keep Kurdistan part of Iraq. But the Trump administration could take advantage of the shared grief among Iraqis by sending a high-level delegation to the country — perhaps led by Mr. Bush and Mr. Biden — that could bring the sides together to discuss a peaceful way forward. There could be no more fitting tribute to Jalal Talabani.

Peter W. Galbraith, a former United States ambassador to Croatia, is the author of The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End.

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