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Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, Iraq's Postwar President Dies At 83


A towering figure in the Middle East has died, Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani. He was 83 and had been ill for several years. Talabani was Iraq's president from 2005 to 2014. He helped found the Kurds' autonomous region. He'd also been a commander of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. NPR's Jane Arraf met Talabani more than 20 years ago and has this remembrance.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: In the 1960s, Jalal Talabani was a Kurdish commander living in the mountains and leading attacks on Iraqi forces. He founded the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the second main Kurdish political party. And he worked with the U.S. to try to get rid of Saddam Hussein, including a failed coup engineered by the CIA.

Two years after Saddam was toppled, Talabani became president of Iraq, a mostly ceremonial role he held for nine tumultuous years while the country was wracked by sectarian war and political crisis. I sat down with Talabani for one of his last interviews in 2012. It was for the Al-Jazeera English network. I asked him whether Iraq had turned out the way he'd thought it would.


JALAL TALABANI: I think the collapse of dictatorship was the beginning of new Iraq. Instead of dictatorship, we have now democracy. So we have freedom for all parties. So this kind of freedom - Iraqi people are thirsty to have it.

ARRAF: He always said he was optimistic that Iraq could turn around, and life would be better for all its citizens. Talabani, who is known as Mam Jalal, Kurdish for uncle, turned a largely ceremonial post into much more.

NAJMIDDIN KARIM: Mam Jalal's presence and influence in Baghdad didn't stem from him being president and the authorities the president had. We know that presidency doesn't really have much authority. But he was a historical figure, and he could bring people together.

ARRAF: That's Najmiddin Karim, the Kurdish governor of Kirkuk, speaking recently. Talabani was dying in hospital when Kurds went to the polls last week to vote for independence. The referendum was engineered by his compatriot but political rival Kurdish President Masoud Barzani. Talabani had always said that every Kurd longed for independence. But the leadership had to be practical.

Today, many Kurds wept and lit candles. Talabani's body will be sent home to the Kurdistan region. But a ban on international commercial flights, imposed by Baghdad in retaliation for the referendum, could delay many of his comrades seeking to pay respects. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Erbil. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.