Talabani leads renaissance of Iraqi Kurds

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The Independent Online

The election of the Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani as Iraqi President marks an extraordinary reversal of fortune for the long-persecuted Kurds of Iraq.

The election of the Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani as Iraqi President marks an extraordinary reversal of fortune for the long-persecuted Kurds of Iraq.

Mr Talabani, the first non-Arab President of an Arab state, was chosen by the Iraqi parliament after prolonged and rancorous negotiations between the Kurdish, Shia and Sunni communities.

People danced and waved the Kurdish flag in the streets of Kurdish towns and villages as the news was announced. The five million Iraqi Kurds, who fought Saddam Hussein for decades, are the clearest beneficiaries of the US invasion.

Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi president overthrown by the US in 2003, was shown the election of Mr Talabani on television in his cell.

"After being liberated from the most hideous of dictatorships ... our people - the Arabs, the Kurds, the Turkmen and the Assyrians - want to build a new Iraq free from dictatorship and and tyranny, a democratic, unified Iraq," said Mr Talabani in a speech after his election.

Mr Talabani and two deputy presidents will now chose a prime minister which is expected to be Ibrahim Jaafari, the Shia leader, but there are still differences over who should hold the interior and defence ministries as well as the oil ministry.

The new President is a burly, mercurial figure who has shown great ability to survive numerous setbacks and defeats in the past. He is expected to live in the mansion in Baghdad formerly occupied by Barzan al-Tikriti, the half-brother of Saddam Hussein who is now in prison. Mr Talabani is believed to have brought 3,000 peshmerga, elite Kurdish soldiers who are now members of the Iraqi army, as his bodyguard in Baghdad.

Mr Talabani is likely to play a far more powerful role than his predecessor, Ghazi al-Yawer, who will be one of his deputies. He already has the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a powerful political and military organization, under his command. Since the Gulf War in 1991 he has ruled half of Kurdistan and in 1993 his forces attacked and captured the oil city of Kirkuk.

He rose to influence as a lieutenant of Mullah Mustafa Barzani, the founding father of Kurdish nationalism in Iraq. He joined the Kurdistan Democratic Party at the age of 13, trained as a lawyer and by 1958, when the Iraqi monarchy was overthrown, he was in the inner circle of the party.

At the time of the great Kurdish defeat in 1975 - after the Kurds were treacherously abandoned by the US and the Shah of Iran - Mr Talabani broke away to form his own party called the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. For years he competed with Massoud Barzani, the present leader of the KDP, a rivalry which periodically led to heavy fighting and, in the 1990s, to civil war in Kurdistan.

Although only a fifth of the population, the Kurds are by far the best organised of Iraq's communities. Their leaders are more experienced - the Kurdish ministers in the outgoing interim government were notably more effective than their inexperienced Arab counterparts.