Talabani, Jalal (1933–)

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Talabani, Jalal

Jalal Talabani is the first elected Iraqi head of state since the establishment of modern Iraq in 1921. He is the founder and chairman of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two main parties in Iraq's Kurdistan region.


Talabani was born in 1933 in the village of Kelkan, near Dokan Lake in Iraqi Kurdistan. He received his early education in the town of Koysanjaq and went to secondary school in Kirkuk. Talabani's initiation into politics was at an unusually early age; he joined the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) when he was fourteen years old and moved up in the ranks until becoming a member of its Central Committee when he was barely eighteen years old. He initially tried to enter medical school, but ended up studying law. After three years in the law school, he was compelled to go into hiding in 1956 to avoid persecution for his political activism organizing Kurdish students. The toppling of the monarchy in 1958 enabled him to finish his education; he returned to law school and graduated in 1959. He was drafted into the military, but two years later he was fighting in the Kurdish uprising against the Iraqi government. After serving the Kurdish cause under the banner of the KDP, both as a fighter and as a diplomat and political negotiator, he formed his own views on the best way to achieve his people's objectives. His differences with the KDP leadership led him to form his own party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in 1975.

Following his departure from the KDP, Talabani established himself as a leader of a major Kurdish faction that controlled the eastern Iraqi Kurdish territories, mainly with the help of Iran. This relationship with Iran was not free of setbacks and betrayals—the greatest of which took place after the conclusion of the 1975 agreement between the Shah of Iran and the Iraqi government of saddam hussein with the help of Algeria. Under the terms of the agreement, the Shah cut off all military and logistic help to the Iraqi Kurds in exchange for water and territorial concessions.


Talabani was a high-ranking member of the KDP. In this capacity, he participated in many political activities on behalf of the party. He was a member of the delegation that went to Baghdad in 1963 to conduct negotiations with the Iraqi president, Abd al-Salam Arif. However, by 1975, he and fellow KDP members were at odds with the party leader, Mustafa Barzani. They formed their own party, the PUK, around a group within the KDP known as the Political Bureau, which had existed at least since 1966, when it allied itself with the Baghdad government in a short-lived pact that ended with the 1968 coup that brought the Ba'th to power. The group ended its activities following the announcement of the 11 March 1970 agreement between Barzani and the government.

Throughout the 1980s, Talabani and his PUK engaged the Iraqi government in continuous fighting that ended in the murderous 1988 "al-Anfal" (Spoils of War, a Qur'anic reference) campaign that caused the death of tens of thousands of Kurds, mostly civilians, with conventional and chemical weapons. Talabani and his party were targets of chemical weapons, as the Anfal trial that was held in post-Saddam Iraq revealed. While Saddam Hussein was ultimately responsible for ordering the atrocities, the main figure in charge of executing the campaign was Saddam's cousin, ali hasan al-majid, who acquired the nickname "Ali al-Kimawyi" (Chemical Ali). He notoriously bragged about the use of the chemical weapons, but went on to declare, on tape, "I will bomb them [i.e. the Kurds] with chemical weapons. Who is going to object? The international [community]? F*** the international [community] and those who intercede on their behalf of all God's countries."

Being at a great military disadvantage and feeling abandoned by the international community, which supplied Saddam with conventional and chemical weapons and saw him as a necessary evil, Talabani sought refuge in Iran, saving the fight for another day. This day came in 1991, when Saddam Hussein's regime lost its Western patronage. Following the regime's defeat in Kuwait, popular uprisings—at American urging—started in the Shi'ite cities of southern Iraq and the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq in March 1991. The refusal of the U.S. and its allies to support the rebels caused the collapse of the uprisings and helped the regime crush the southern cities through systematic massacres. Hundreds of thousands fled the area for Iran and Saudi Arabia, while those less fortunate fell into the hands of the Iraqi army.

The fate of Iraqi Kurdistan was comparatively better this time. Painful images in international media of innocent Kurdish civilians leaving their homes in freezing weather in Kurdistan's mountainous terrain aided Talabani in his effort to negotiate the creation of a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan. His mission succeeded, and thousands of lives were saved.


Name: Jalal Talabani

Birth: 1933, Kelkan, Sulaymaniyya, Iraq

Family: Wife; two sons: Qubad and Bavel

Nationality: Iraqi (Kurdish)

Education: Law degree, 1959


  • 1951: Elected member of the Central Committee of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)
  • 1959: Begins practicing law
  • 1975: Founds the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), becomes chairman
  • 2003: Appointed member of the (U.S.-controlled) Iraqi Governing Council
  • 2005: Elected president in provisional government
  • 2006: Elected president

A year later, a parliament and a regional government were founded after fairly democratic elections in the Kurdish enclave. Having lost contact with their common enemy, the Baghdad government, Talabani's PUK and the KDP, now led by mas'ud barzani, revived their three-decade-long rivalry. A bitter fight ensued between 1994 and 1998. Talabani and Barzani signed a peace agreement in Washington that year, and on 4 October 2002 the Kurdish regional government held a session with both parties represented. Jalal Talabani seized the opportunity and called for a law to ban fighting among Kurdish factions.

In the months prior to the March 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Talabani participated in many conferences held by Iraqi opposition groups in London, Kurdistan, and other places. He secured certain commitments from his Shi'ite counterparts concerning future power- and wealth-sharing arrangements, as well as other outstanding issues between the Kurds and Iraq's Arab governments. Following the collapse of Saddam's regime in April 2003, he was selected by L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator of Iraq, to serve on an Iraqi "Governing Council." He was one of ten members of the Governing Council who took turns serving for a month as president of the Council. For the balance of the year, he was a chief negotiator in the process of writing a transitional law in preparation for drafting a permanent constitution.

Following the two elections held in Iraq after the de jure transfer of power to the Iraqis in June 2004, Tala-bani was elected by the Iraqi parliament to the position of president, making him not only the first elected, but also the first Kurdish Iraqi head of state. The only time a Kurd held substantial power in Iraq was in 1936, when General Bakr al-Sidqi staged a short-lived coup d'état.


Talabani's standing in the international community is excellent. He is generally known for his pleasant personality, apparent humility, and calculated pragmatism. His success in carving a safe enclave for the Kurds in 1991 is a testimony not only to his diplomatic skills, but also to his access to key international policymakers. He is also acknowledged as a moderate Kurdish nationalist. In Europe, he is especially praised for his position against the death penalty.


In spite of his long history of political struggle and his impressive accomplishments, it is too early to discern the ultimate legacy of this still-active politician. In the past he was associated with the effort to secure Kurdish national interests and aspirations, and with intracommunal Kurdish politics. However, since 2003, he has been a major participant in the shaping of the contemporary state of Iraq. Perhaps his greatest legacy—should an Iraqi state that includes Kurdistan survive—will be based on his success in balancing his obligations to his own cause with his constitutional duties as head of the Iraqi state.


You know, before becoming president of Iraq, I always called for Kurdish Arab brotherhood for common struggle, against dictatorship, for having democracy, and democratic federal regime in Iraq. It is some slogans that we struggled for in the past. Nowadays also I can say to the Kurds stay inside democratic federal Iraq, better for you than asking for a kind of independence which is impossible.


There are occasional immoral voices that call for a new dictatorship to be installed in Iraq as, they claim, a less laborious means of imposing order. Order is certainly important, but so is freedom. A restored dictatorship in Iraq will be neither friendly nor benign. Animated by vengeance and fed by oil, a new dictatorship will again seek to make Iraq into the Arab Prussia and the overlord of the Gulf, goals that Iraqi regimes before Saddam aspired to.

Building democracy in Iraq is not a fanciful quest, but a recognition that all other approaches have failed. True stability comes from consent, not from the illusory 'stability' of dictatorships. It is therefore in our mutual interest that we pursue the cause of democracy. We may falter, we may tire, but if we persevere, we shall not be defeated.



Anderson, Liam, and Gareth Stansfield. The Future of Iraq. New York: Palgrave, 2004.

Gunter, Michael. The Kurds of Iraq. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.

Kadhim, Abbas K. "An Opportunity They Can't Afford to Miss." Bitterlemons International, 18 December 2003. Available from http://www.bitterlemons-international.org/inside.php?id=82.

O'Leary, Brendan, et al. (eds). The Future of Kurdistan in Iraq. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.

Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Official website. Available from http://www.puk.org.

Suarez, Ray. "Newsmaker: Jalal Talabani." Interview, PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, 15 September 2005. Available from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/middle_east/july-dec05/talabani_9-15.html.

Talabani, Jalal. "Iraq's Message to Mr. Blair: We Still Need the Troops That Saved Us from Tyranny." The Times (London), 10 October 2005. Available from http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article576691.ece.

                                           Abbas Kadhim