Jalal Talabani: Iraq’s Champion of the Art of the Possible
Emma Sky is senior fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and the author of The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq.
Talabani was keen to help us understand the country and would go to lengths to explain its history to us. He spoke of how the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, between the Ottoman Empire and the Allies, had offered the Kurds the hope of independence.
Jalal Talabani—or Mam (Uncle) Jalal, as he was widely known—loved to tell jokes. He once recounted how, on his way back to his house in Sulaymaniyah, in Iraqi Kurdistan, he had spotted a man sitting on his own by the side of the road drinking alcohol. Talabani told his driver to stop the car, and then went over to speak to the drunk. After a brief discussion, he asked the drunk whether he recognized him. The drunk did not.
“Have you never seen my picture?” Talabani inquired. “I am Mam Jalal, the president of Iraq!”
The drunk responded: “Have another drink—soon you will tell me I am President George Bush!”
Talabani delivered the punch line with a great chortle. In all his years as a Kurdish Peshmerga fighter battling Iraqi government forces, he had never imagined that he, a Kurd, would one day become president of Iraq.
Born in 1933 in Kelkan, near Lake Dukan in Iraqi Kurdistan, Talabani joined the Kurdish Democratic Party, led by the Kurdish nationalist leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani, at age 14. When not fighting the Iraqi regime, Talabani traveled widely, representing the Kurdish resistance abroad. He admired Mao Zedong and studied Chinese. Following the collapse of the Kurdish separatist movement in 1975, when Iran ended its support, Talabani split from the tribal KDP to establish the leftist Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, inspired by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Not only was Talabani a Kurdish nationalist, he also proved himself to be an adept Iraqi president. Although the presidency in Iraq is a largely ceremonial post, Talabani used his position to bring politicians together, over dinners, to defuse tensions and build bridges. He was a pragmatist, always seeking compromise.
As the political adviser to General Ray Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, from 2007 to 2010, I accompanied my boss to his frequent meetings with the Iraqi president. Talabani was keen to help us understand the country and would go to lengths to explain its history to us. He spoke of how the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, between the Ottoman Empire and the Allies, had offered the Kurds the hope of independence. But it had never been ratified, and it was replaced by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne with no mention of the Kurds. He explained the tensions between Shiites in Iraq and Iran, and expounded on how the Sunnis had never had political parties in exile and were not represented effectively after the dissolution of the Baath party following the overthrow of the Hussein regime.
There was never a way to have a short meeting with Talabani. We were always taken off to a room to be plied with food. Talabani himself would spoon ever more rice and meat onto our plates. He had put on so much weight that his doctor was increasingly worried about him. A young Kurd hovered behind him at meal times, instructed to monitor the president’s food intake.
Talabani charmed us all with his chuckles and kebabs. For this reason, U.S. officials were slow to see his closeness to Tehran.
He never achieved that aspiration. Intent on staying on as president despite his age and ailing health, he was left unable to speak after a stroke in 2012. If it were not for being incapacitated, he most likely would have tried to persuade Masoud Barzani not to hold a referendum on Kurdish independence in September 2017, in the face of opposition from Baghdad, neighboring countries and the international community. Barzani gambled and lost control of Kirkuk, borders and oilfields—the very gains that the Kurds had made after 2003. Ever the master of the art of the possible, Talabani would have recognized the time was not right.
This article was originally published on Politico