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Iraq: Presidential Choice Is Landmark For Kurds

Newly elected Iraqi President Jalal Talabani (file photo) 6 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The Iraqi National Assembly elected Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) head Jalal Talabani to be the country's new president on 6 April. Talabani's rise is a milestone in the history of Iraq's long-oppressed Kurds. He is the first Kurd ever to fill the seat, and has worked hard to maintain Kurdish autonomy within a federal Iraq.

A Kurdish patriot, Talabani had a history of organization and -- at times -- confrontation to oppose the regime of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

But he has worked alongside fellow Kurd Mas'ud Barzani to maintain autonomy within a postwar federal Iraq.

"It is a right of the Kurdish people to demand that the region of Kurdistan, as it is known in terms of geography and history, become the region over which the Kurdish people would exert their federal rule," Talabani told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) on 24 February. "We believe that these [currently] existing problems can also be solved by consensus and dialogue, in a brotherly political way. There is no problem in Iraq that would be unsolvable, in our opinion." (see also: Iraq's New President Talks to Radio Free Iraq)

Talabani has played a crucial role in the postwar administration of Iraq, holding a seat on the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council and acting as rotating president on the council in November 2003.
"A serious patriotic task stands before all of us: It is reestablishing the previous Iraqi national unity on the principles of free choice, consensus, and national reconciliation between Iraqis of good will who are against dictatorship and terror."

A constant proponent of reconciliation between Iraq's divergent groups, Talabani told fellow parliamentarians at the National Assembly's first session on 16 March.

"A serious patriotic task stands before all of us: It is reestablishing the previous Iraqi national unity on the principles of free choice, consensus, and national reconciliation between Iraqis of good will who are against dictatorship and terror," Talabani said.

Talabani held no role in the interim Iraqi government, but remained a key politician. He headed the Kurdistan Coalition List's ballot for seats on the transitional National Assembly, with aspirations of being elected by the assembly as Iraq's transitional president.

Early Political Ambitions

For Talabani, the Iraqi presidential post represents the culmination of a political career that he launched even before he reached adulthood.

Talabani was born in 1933 in the Kurdish village of Kelkan. He joined the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) headed by Mustafa Barzani -- reportedly at the early age of 14 -- and was elected to the KDP's central committee in 1951, while earning a law degree from Baghdad University.

He later became a member of the KDP's politburo and was a key figure in the 1961 Kurdish revolt against the government of Abd al-Karim Qasim. He participated in the delegation that held talks with the government of President Abd al-Salam Arif's in 1963. Talabani left the KDP in 1966 and later founded the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan from Damascus in 1975.

The PUK and KDP had a contentious relationship, battling each other from 1978 until 1986. The PUK was also at odds with Saddam Hussein's government but eventually established a cease-fire with Hussein and entered into talks in 1983. Those talks broke down in 1985 and full-scale fighting resumed, with pro-Iraqi militiamen killing Talabani's brother and two nieces.

Iran facilitated a reconciliation between the PUK and KDP in 1986, with both groups receiving financial support from the Iranian regime.

Birth Of The Kurdistan Front

In 1987, Talabani and Barzani, along with a number of smaller Kurdish groups, formed the Kurdistan Front. Kurds had effectively gained control over Iraqi Kurdistan, but that control was short-lived.

Saddam Hussein retaliated and, from March to September 1988, his army launched the infamous Anfal campaign, killing, deporting, or gassing hundreds of thousands of Kurds. The PUK-controlled areas bore the brunt of the attacks, and Talabani sought refuge in Iran.

Following the 1991 Gulf War, Kurds launched an uprising against the Iraqi regime. In March, Hussein's troops invaded Kurdistan, driving Kurds north into the mountains. By April, coalition forces had established a safe-haven for the Kurds along the Iraqi border, while Talabani and Barzani entered into autonomy talks with Hussein's regime. The PUK and KDP continued to battle the regime throughout most of the year.

Talabani and Barzani joined the Iraqi opposition in 1992, and later that year the PUK and KDP agreed on the formation of a Kurdistan National Assembly. Elections were held, with the groups effectively splitting control of the parliament. Both the PUK and KDP retained their own peshmerga fighting forces and administration over their areas in eastern and western Kurdistan.

Contentious Kurdish Relations

Civil war broke out between the two sides in 1994. By 1996, Barzani was receiving help from Baghdad in battling the PUK, prompting Talabani to brand Barzani a traitor for enlisting Hussein's help.

The Kurds eventually reached a peace agreement in 1998, and convened the first joint session of the Kurdish parliament in six years in October 2002.

Just weeks ahead of the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, the PUK and KDP created a joint higher leadership under Talabani and Barzani's chairmanship.

Talabani has worked with Barzani to maintain Kurdish autonomy within a federal Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion of the country.

"We think that Kurds, Shi'a Arabs, and Sunni Arabs have to agree on the new structure of the new Iraq, on the writing of the constitution, on the distribution of the main posts," Talibani told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq on 24 February. "Without this consensus, there could be no viable and stable Iraq and governments."

With his election to the post of president, Talabani has been offered a chance to further those goals -- and play a key role in Iraq's stabilization and reconstruction.