Kurdish leader Talabani, onetime hope for Iraqi unity, dies

In this April 12, 2005 file photo, then Iraqi President Jalal Talibani, left, and then U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld talk at a press availability in Baghdad, Iraq.
Gerald Herbert/Associated Press/File
Then-Iraqi President Jalal Talibani (left) and then US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld spoke in Baghdad in 2005.

NEW YORK — Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish leader who used pragmatism, guile, and an outsize personality to navigate a hazardous course in Mideast politics, surviving guerrilla war, the terrors of Saddam Hussein, and shifting alliances to become the first president of Iraq under its postwar constitution, died on Tuesday in Berlin. He was 83.

The cause was a brain hemorrhage and a stroke, his second since 2012, according to Saadi Bira, a spokesman for Mr. Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

The Iraqi presidency, on paper, is largely ceremonial. But Mr. Talabani, through skillful bridge-building, used his tenure in office, from 2005 to 2012, to act as a chief executive with a broad and powerful portfolio.


President George W. Bush’s administration saw Mr. Talabani as an important ally, though at times he was a harsh critic of US policies and military tactics.

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In a statement, Bush praised Mr. Talabani’s efforts to try to unite his country after Hussein’s ouster, saying: ‘‘He saw the potential of a free and united Iraq. And he worked tirelessly to deliver peace and liberty to his people.’’

The Obama White House was also quick to reach out to him. Michael Rubin, editor of Middle East Quarterly, reported that “less than two weeks into his presidency,” Obama telephoned Mr. Talabani “to discuss the way ahead.'’

Mr. Talabani was long an ardent campaigner for a sovereign Kurdish state in northern Iraq, where his political beginnings, like his family, were rooted. But he submerged many of those aspirations in his later years as he worked to unify the factions that contested for power after the fall of Hussein in 2003.

Mr. Talabani was a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, which drafted the country’s interim constitution after the war. The National Assembly named him interim president in April 2005, to succeed Ghazi Mashal Ajil Yawer. A year later he became the first president to be elected under the new constitution.


As the war in Iraq wound down in 2010, Mr. Talabani figured in the Obama administration’s plans for a postwar government there. In their 2012 book, “The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama,” Michael R. Gordon, a former correspondent for The New York Times, and retired Lieutenant General Bernard E. Trainor wrote that Obama made a confidential call to Mr. Talabani asking him to give up the Iraqi presidency so that a more inclusive government might be formed under Ayad Allawi, a Shi’ite with broad Sunni support.

The administration’s aim, the authors wrote, was to counter what the White House saw as a drift toward authoritarianism under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Mr. Talabani refused. He was reelected a week later.

Mr. Talabani, widely known as Mam Jalal or Uncle Jalal, cut a Falstaffian figure, typically in bespoke suits. A rotund, gregarious gourmand, he enjoyed nothing so much as a bountiful table and Cuban cigars as he grew wealthy from duties on oil exported illegally through Turkey.

His health was not as robust. He collapsed from exhaustion in February 2007, and a US military plane took him to a hospital in Amman, Jordan. He returned home after 17 days, but that May he went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for rest and treatment for what he called “my obesity.'’


In the summer of 2008, he returned to the Mayo Clinic for an operation to repair a heart valve. Then came the stroke, at the end of 2012, when he was flown to Germany for treatment.

Mr. Talabani was a consummate political survivor and an openhanded pragmatist, if not an ideological chameleon, adept at maintaining his equilibrium in the sectarian, often ruthless environment of postwar Iraq. He was quite capable of startling marriages of political convenience, some ending in equally expedient divorce.

After the Islamic revolution brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power in Iran in 1979, for example, Mr. Talabani backed the Iranian Kurds against the regime in Tehran. Later, he allied himself with the Tehran government in its war with Baghdad.

In a 2007 profile in The New Yorker by Jon Lee Anderson, Iraq’s national security adviser, Shi’ite politician Mowaffak Rubaie, was quoted as calling Mr. Talabani “very difficult to define.”

“If you are an Islamist, he brings you Koranic verses; if you’re a Marxist, he’ll talk to you about Marxist-Leninist theory, dialectics and Descartes,” the article quoted Rubaie as saying. “He has a very interesting ability to speak several languages, sometimes with a very limited vocabulary. He has a lot of anecdotes and knows a lot of jokes. He is an extraordinarily generous person, and he spends like there’s no tomorrow.”

Jalal Talabani was born on Nov. 12, 1933, in the northeastern Kurdish village of Kelkan, near Suleimaniya. The Talabani clan was a powerful one, and his father was one of its leaders. Jalal’s political life started early. At 13 he joined a clandestine group of Kurdish students in what was then British-ruled Iraq. At 18 he was among the ranking members of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by Mustafa Barzani.

Mr. Talabani is survived by his wife, who owns a television station and a newspaper in Suleimaniya; their two sons, Bafel, who works in counterinsurgency for the Patriotic Union on Kurdistan, and Qubad, the deputy prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government; and three grandchildren. His wife and children were in Germany with him when he died, according to a spokesman for his party.