Jalal Talabani, Kurdish leader who rose to presidency of Iraq

IRBIL, Iraq - Jalal Talabani, 83, the Kurdish guerrilla leader who became Iraq's president after the United States toppled Saddam Hussein, and who embodied hopes for a unified, peaceful future through years of strife, has died, Kurdish officials said Tuesday.

He was often seen as a unifying elder statesman who could soothe tempers among Iraq's Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. But the country's centrifugal forces have only accelerated since he was hospitalized nearly five years ago, as it has battled the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State and faced growing demands for Kurdish independence.

Jalal Talabani

Mr. Talabani suffered a stroke in 2012 and was moved to a German hospital later that year for treatment. He died Tuesday after his condition deteriorated rapidly, according to Marwan Talabani, a relative and senior official in the office of Mr. Talabani's son.

His death came days after the Kurds voted for independence, essentially rejecting the vision of a unified, multi-ethnic Iraq that he had championed in the chaotic years after the U.S.-led invasion.

The vote, which was led by his longtime Kurdish rival, the regional president, Masoud Barzani, is not expected to lead to a Kurdish state any time soon and has further isolated the small landlocked region. Iraq and its neighbors have rejected the vote, and Baghdad has banned international flights and threatened to take control of the autonomous Kurdish region's borders.

Mr. Talabani came from a generation of Kurdish leaders who spent decades fighting for self-rule and whose people were often brutally repressed by the central government.

Born in a tiny village north of the city of Irbil on Nov. 12, 1933, Mr. Talabani was in his early teens when he joined the Kurdistan Democratic Party, at the time the main Kurdish political force trying to carve out an autonomous homeland for Iraq's Kurds.

In the 1960s, he joined the Kurdish uprising against the Iraqi government. When the revolt collapsed in 1975, he broke off from the Barzani-headed KDP to form the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. To this day Kurdish politics in Iraq remain dominated by two families: the Barzanis in Irbil and the Talabanis in Sulaimaniyah.

A year later he again took up arms against the central government and eventually joined forces with Iran in the Iran-Iraq war. In the late 1980s, Hussein launched the Anfal Campaign, in which more than 50,000 Kurds were killed, many by poison-gas attacks.

Iraq's Kurds took their first steps toward autonomy in the early 1990s under the protection of a U.S.-enforced no-fly-zone aimed at halting Hussein's killings. But the Kurds fell into infighting. Pitched battles between forces loyal to Barzani and those who sided with Mr. Talabani killed thousands and subsided only when Barzani called on Saddam's army to help him push back Mr. Talabani's men.

As the U.S. prepared to oust Hussein in the 2003 invasion, the PUK worked with the CIA. After Hussein's fall, Mr. Talabani and Barzani came together to govern their autonomous region, but ultimately Mr. Talabani's high-profile appointments took him to Baghdad.

He was chosen by parliament as interim president in April 2005. A year later, parliament made him full president under the new constitution, reelecting him to a second four-year term in 2010.

His ascension left Barzani to preside over the Kurdish government alone, an irony that Mr. Talabani wryly noted in February 2005.

"He personally prefers that I be in Baghdad and he be in Kurdistan," Mr. Talabani said.

In Baghdad, he established himself as the voice of the Kurds and was a skilled player in Iraq's sometimes bloody power politics.

Sunni Arabs remained suspicious of him, pointing to his Iranian ties. And he angered many Iraqis in 2011 when he described Kirkuk, a multi-ethnic city claimed by the Kurds and the central government, as a Kurdish Jerusalem.

But the rotund leader sought to cast himself as being above the fray, using the largely ceremonial powers of his post to try to take the edge off conflicts that flared among factions.

"Contrary to all Iraqi politicians, Talabani believes that making concessions to other groups in order to save his country does not represent a humiliation to his personal dignity," analyst Hadi Jalo said.

Long overweight, he suffered a stroke in 2012 and was taken to Germany for treatment.

With his departure from political life, Iraq lost one of its few brakes on the divisions among its rival factions, and Masoud Barzani began dealing with Baghdad directly.

Mr. Talabani never expressed an opinion about the referendum, and his supporters were divided on it.

His absence left a "political vacuum," said Falah Mustafa, the head of the Kurdish region's foreign relations department. But he said Mr. Talabani's "legacy for the Kurdish cause will remain a source of inspiration among the people of Kurdistan and beyond."

He is survived by his wife, Hiro, and his two sons. One of them is Qubad Talabani, a deputy prime minister of the Kurdish region.