From Mountains to Palaces: The Life of Jalal Talabani

Published by IranWire

In the courtyard of the modest primary school in the small city of Koy Sanjaq in Iraq, a 13-year old boy huddled in a corner crying. He had just received news of events in a foreign country, from a city only a few hundred kilometers away. In Iran’s Mahabad, President Qazi Mohammad, founder of the short-lived, Soviet-backed Republic of Kurdistan, had been executed. Dreams of Kurdish sovereignty had once more been crushed, once more fallen victim to the cynic power plays of non-Kurd powers. This time it was because of the dealings of President Truman, Comrade Stalin and the wily Iranian prime minister, Ahmad Qavam. From the balcony, the boy’s teacher consoled him. “Tomorrow morning, come and read an epic poem for all your classmates,” he said. “The fight must continue.”

It was December 1946 and Jalal Talabani, who died on Tuesday, October 3, in Berlin at the age of 83, never forgot the lessons learned on that icy December day in that mountainous town.

This anecdote is one of the many that made Talabani a larger-than-life figure who drew some form of respect, even if begrudgingly, across a dazzlingly wide array of people. Reactions to his death are testament to it. Virtually all Kurdish parties praised him in lavish terms, even those currently militarily clashing in the Kurdish areas of Syria, and which subscribe to widely different visions of the future of Kurds. So did the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seen by many Kurds as a primary arch enemy. Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, spoke of Talabani’s life-long struggle for “liberation, integrity and independence of his country and nation, as well as maintaining the territorial integrity and national unity of Iraq.” His statements conveniently ignored the fact that the vast majority of Talabani’s life had been indeed spent fighting Baghdad, and that the only “nation” to which he would have truly belonged was that of the Kurds, whose independence-seeking referendum last week came with his support. The Iranian Maoists, in the habit of denouncing former comrades for sins of impurity, saw no problem in praising a man who was also endorsed by George W. Bush, whose message of condolence came fast.

This honorary president of Socialist International might have been besties with Francois and Danielle Mitterand, but he never hid his admiration for Mao. Talabani’s currency across the political spectrum is perhaps best captured by a formulation of Jon Lee Anderson: Talabani might have been the only one to have kissed the cheeks of both “Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran,” he said.

“Talabani had charisma, personal charm, flexibility and moderation, which enabled him to navigate in Iraqi and Kurdish stormy politics,” Professor Ofra Bengio, Israel’s foremost expert on Kurdish affairs, told IranWire from Tel Aviv. Still, she believed that Talabani’s close relations to the Islamic Republic of Iran “raised doubts about his patriotism,” since “Iran managed to use him as a card for weakening the Kurds as a whole.”

Mohsen Rezvani disagrees with this characterization. As the leader of Iran’s Maoist Toilers’ Party (Ranjbaran), Rezvani collaborated with Talabani over the years and called him a “dear friend.” Talabani had been a political and military ally to Rezvani’s fellow Maoists as they fought both the shah’s regime and that of the Islamic Republic that replaced it. And yet, he had also, at different times, allied himself with both of the Tehran regimes too. Parviz Sabeti, a deputy head of the shah regime’s notorious Savak, mentioned Talabani’s military help to Iranian Maoists with bitterness.

“In the early post-revolutionary years, it must have been around 1980, I remember meeting him in Tehran,” Rezvani told IranWire in a phone interview from Toronto, where he now lives. The Islamic Republic was newly-founded and it still had the support of many of the country’s leftists.

“Talabani told me: ‘These people will come after the communists. They’ll arrest and kill you all.’ He was genuinely concerned. Yes, he worked with the Islamic Republic. He also worked with the Americans later on. But this was because he considered himself the leader of a nation that had to avoid isolation. He was a principled man to the end.” Rezvani also recalled many memories of visiting Talabani — in his exile homes in Rome and Damascus, and in long mountainous walks in Iraqi Kurdistan ,where Talabani warmly welcomed the militants of Ranjabran after they had been driven out of Iran by persecution from the Islamic Republic.

Born in the mountainous village of Kalkan [near Suleymania in Iraqi Kurdistan] in 1933, Talabani came from the prominent eponymous clan, but his father was a minor sheikh. His earliest political influence came from Ibrahim Ahmad, a Kurds’ warrior intellectual, equally known for his novels and poetry and his role in founding the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), which continues to be the governing party of Iraqi Kurdistan today.

At 16, Talabani followed Ahmad in joining the KDP and at 18, he was already a central committee member. Like his mentor, he studied law at the University of Baghdad, where he hobnobbed with Kurds who had come to the capital for higher aspirations. As a founder of the Kurdistan Student Union not tolerated by the British-backed monarchical regime, he was driven underground. In 1955, he went to China, where he claimed he met Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the People’s Republic of China, and even caught a glimpse of Mao Zedong. A life-long affair with the Chinese communists began, and Talabani translated Mao’s works into Kurdish. In makeshift camps hatched over the mountains or in palatial residences in Paris and Baghdad, he often displayed pictures of Mao.

When the Iraqi nationalist revolution led by Colonel Abdulkarim Qassem toppled the monarchy in 1958, Talabani went back home and graduated a year later. He signed up to the Iraqi army where he commanded a tank unit. But the detente between the Kurds and the new regime didn’t last long, and when the Kurdish rebellion broke out in September 1961, the ambitious Maam Jalal (Kurdish for “Uncle Jalal”, as he had already become known) didn’t hesitate to join. He is known to have commanded battles near Kirkuk and Suleymania but he was soon dispatched abroad by the Moscow-backed KDP leader, Mustafa Barzani, who relied on his diplomatic skills. He lived across Europe and the Middle East, now in Beirut, now in Damascus. Rare was an Arab leader he hadn’t met — Nasser, Gaddafi, Hafez Assad, but also Jordan’s King Hussein.

In 1970, he married Hero Ahmad, a daughter of his life-long mentor, who would become his political partner for life. Ahmad and Talabani had broken out with the KDP leadership in a familiar chapter of the always- fractious Kurdish politics. The Kurdish revolt suffered a mortal blow in 1975, when Iraq’s de facto ruler, Saddam Hussein, kissed and made up with the shah of Iran, under the meditation of the Algerian regime. The Algiers agreement of 1975 meant that Iran, which had been working with Israel to militarily support the Kurds, pulled the plug. Talabani and followers, who had been effectively separate from KDP main command since the mid 1960s, made the split official and founded the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in 1975 — a bitter rival for the KDP, which soon came to ally itself with the Islamic Republic that came to power in Iran in 1979. When Saddam went back on the Algiers deal and attacked Iran, Tehran had the support of Talabani, who spent a good deal of time there. Memoirs of Iranian officials are full of wild stories about their dealings with Talabani. The alliance even persisted with a most grisly act of the Tehran regime: The assassination of the Iranian Kurdish leader, Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, in a restaurant in Berlin in July, 1989. Some Kurds claimed that Talabani had had a personal role in organizing Ghassemlou’s elimination.

But Tehran wasn’t the final home for Talabani, as his aspirations went much higher than being a Tehran tool. From his new Iranian abode, he traveled to the United States. After a chemical attack in March, 1988 by the Saddam regime killed more than 5,000 in the Kurdish town of Halabja, he went to the US and lobbied hard, in the US and at the UN, against Saddam. After the US-led forces drove Saddam out of Kuwait in 1991, a no-fly zone was declared in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq. An autonomous Kurdistan came into being and Talabani made sure to have a founding role in the Kurdistan Regional Government — and in pocketing much of the “taxes” that the KRG gained from its oil sales. Hence the joint KDP-PUK government.

The 1990s saw a bitter fratricidal war between the KDP, led by Masoud Barzani, Mustafa’s son, and Talabani’s PUK. It often got ugly. Barzani used Saddam’s forces against the PUK. The PUK allied ever more closely with Tehran and spent more time on Iranian territory. It helped Iran eliminate the Kurdish forces it didn’t like. In 1998, however, it was in Washington DC, that Talabani and Barzani met to reconcile one more time. The KRG was now firmly divided into spheres of influence for the two big man of Kurdish politics. The Mao-loving rebel of the mountains had become a local kingpin, feted by all sides.

His subsequent career, especially as the first non-Arab president of Iraq from 2005 to 2014, is much better known. But while many wrote in detail of his strong ties to Tehran and DC, of the fact that President Obama called him days after coming to office in 2009, and of his friendship with the Reaganite US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, there were also other aspects. For instance, his pride in the PUK being accepted into membership of the Socialist International (SI), as observer in 2003 and as a full member in 2008. The SI brought together the world’s social democratic parties which, together, governed much of Western Europe and the developing world. Through its structures, and via personal relationships with its leading lights, especially the French Socialist President Mitterand and his wife, Danielle, he bought Kurds a powerful and unlikely international ally. In July 2008, he attended the SI’s 23rd Congress in Athens and spoke with “comradely frankness” about the tasks of socialists worldwide. The socialist inside him must have especially relished the moment. And he must have felt the same when, earlier this year, at the SI’s 25th congress in Cartagena, Colombia picked him as a honorary president of the organization.

Talabani’s last years were plagued by illness and recurrent visits to clinics in the US and Germany. His love for food and Churchill-style cigars didn’t serve him well. As he passed away in Berlin yesterday, he was surrounded by his wife, Hero, who owns a TV station and a newspaper in Sulaymania, and his sons, Bafel, a counter-insurgency head for the PUK, and Qbad, a deputy prime minister of the KRG.

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