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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 April, 2005, 16:49 GMT 17:49 UK
Talabani: Iraq's pragmatic new leader
By Jim Muir
BBC News, Baghdad

If Saddam Hussein did indeed watch on television the election and inauguration of Jalal Talabani as his elected successor in the Iraqi presidency, he must have been grinding his teeth.

During his more than 30 years in power, the former Iraqi president several times issued amnesties forgiving the Kurdish rebels in the north. But one name was always excluded: that of Mr Talabani.

Yet the two men were not strangers. Both pragmatic players of the political game, their paths had intersected at various times.

Saddam Hussein and Jalal Talabani
Saddam Hussein's path often crossed Talabani's

At the height of the Iraq-Iran war in 1983, Saddam Hussein, anxious about the threat of an Iranian-Kurdish alliance, tried to divide the Kurds, and wooed Mr Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) into a ceasefire that lasted over a year.

The collapse of that truce reinvigorated a united Kurdish campaign against the Baathist regime, which reacted by launching what is widely seen as a brutal campaign of genocide against the Kurds.

In 1987 and 1988, hundreds of villages were razed, and uncounted thousands of Kurds were arrested and summarily executed in what Baghdad called the Anfal Campaign.

At least 200,000 are believed to have died, some of them falling victim to chemical attacks such as that in Halabja in 1988.

Triumph and tragedy

Three years later, Mr Talabani crossed back into northern Iraq from neighbouring Syria as the Kurds again rose up against Saddam Hussein in the wake of Iraq's ejection from Kuwait by a US-led coalition.

He was given a hero's welcome by huge crowds of jubilant Kurds in the towns of Zakho and Duhok.

But triumph turned to tragedy as the Baathist forces struck back. Virtually the entire Kurdish population fled into the high mountains along the Turkish and Iranian borders, where many perished in the snow.

Mr Talabani and his ally and rival Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) stayed on with their peshmerga guerrillas, and fought off the government forces.

But Mr Talabani's pragmatism again broke surface. One night in the spring of 1991 when staying at his camp in a ruined school in Mawat - a mountain village north of Sulaymaniyah where he had taken refuge during earlier struggles with the rival KDP in the 1960s - he disappeared, and nobody would say where he had gone.

Then he popped up on television from Baghdad, kissing Saddam Hussein on the cheeks. Far from being outraged, the Kurds danced in celebration. They thought reconciliation with Baghdad must mean the war was over.

As he embraced Saddam Hussein, little can he have imagined that one day he would be taking his place as president of the Iraqi republic.

Saladin's heir

But in February this year, when it was already clear that he was almost certain to become president, he seemed to be taking it in his stride.

"Believe me, I do not have any special kind of feeling," he said.

"I think it is normal that our struggle started and developed and reached this stage of success. With the collapse of the dictatorship, a new Iraq is going to be reshaped, and the Kurds must have their share in the main posts of this country, because we are the second nationality of Iraq."

Becoming president of Iraq crowns more than 50 years of untiring struggle. But he is not a man to rest on his laurels

The Kurds, who make up perhaps 25% of the population, are ethnically, linguistically and culturally quite distinct from Iraq's Arab majority.

The last Kurd who really made his mark in the wider Arab Middle East was Saladin (Salah al-Din al-Ayyoubi), who drove the Western Crusaders out of Jerusalem in the 12th Century.

It is an analogy that Mr Talabani plays down, while acknowledging the significance of a Kurd assuming the presidency.

"Firstly, I am going to lead the country in alliance with the Western countries, not against them," he said.

"Secondly, I don't think I will have the authority to lead the country alone. The presidency is a symbolic one. But it has of course its importance, that for the first time in the history of Iraq, a Kurd will be the president."

Few believe that Mr Talabani will be content to play a purely symbolic role.

Large, ebullient and energetic, he has been an active politician to his fingertips since his student days in the late 1940s and 1950s, when he espoused Kurdish nationalism and joined the KDP, then led by Massoud Barzani's illustrious father, Mullah Mustafa.

During the decades of Kurdish struggle, Mr Talabani forged close, if fluctuating relations with the Iraqi Arab opposition factions which now dominate Baghdad politics, and also with neighbours such as Iran, Turkey and Syria, and the West.

He masters Arabic and Persian as well as his native Kurdish, and is also fluent in English and French.

Bloody war

Born in the small Kurdish village of Kalkan in 1933, Jalal Talabani made his way in a turbulent and complex world of Kurdish politics that often involved internecine struggles for local power as well as the broader drive for freedom.

Espousing left-leaning ideologies and spurning what they regarded as the conservative tribalism of Mullah Mustafa Barzani, Mr Talabani and his influential future father-in-law, Ibrahim Ahmad, split with the KDP in the 1960s, and set up the PUK as a formal rival in 1975.

The two factions sometimes co-operated and sometimes clashed.

After the Kurds held their first free elections in the north in 1992, under the protection of a Western air umbrella, it was not long before the KDP and the PUK engaged in a bitter, bloody and indecisive war.

Despite continual plans for reunification, they still control separate administrations in separate areas of Iraqi Kurdistan.

But they formed a single electoral list for the Iraqi elections in January, and Mr Barzani supported Mr Talabani's bid for the presidency.

Will he use it as a platform to promote the independence for which, deep in their hearts, all Kurds long?

"I know the Kurdish people want independence, but they understand that it cannot be achieved now," he says. "The Kurdish leadership is realistic, they know it's impossible at this time, so they are struggling for federation within the framework of a democratic Iraq."

For Mr Talabani, becoming president of Iraq crowns more than 50 years of untiring struggle.

But he is not a man to rest on his laurels.

The struggle will go on, focused now on the battle for a constitution that enshrines Kurdish rights to autonomous self-rule in the north as part of a federal Iraq, something he believes is as good for Iraq as it is for the Kurds.




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