Jalal Talabani, a Kurdish fighter who became Iraq's first non-Arab president, has died in Germany at the age of 83. He was a key figure in Iraqi Kurdistan, where voters last week overwhelmingly backed independence.
Former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani died in a Berlin hospital on Tuesday after his health rapidly deteriorated, an official from his party said.
Talabani, 83, had suffered with heart problems in recent years and had been transported to Germany for treatment with his wife and two children.
A veteran of the Kurdish guerrilla movement, he was elected Iraq's first non-Arab president in 2005 and helped steer the country through years of sectarian unrest following the US-led invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
During his time in office, Talabani established himself as a unifying statesman and key political mediator between conflicting Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties. He stayed on as head of state — a largely ceremonial role — until 2014. He was succeeded by veteran Kurdish politician Fouad Massoum.
Champion of independence
Known affectionately among Kurds as 'Mam' — or uncle — Talabani fought a decades-long struggle to advance the Kurdish cause.
He was born in the northern province of Erbil in 1933 and went on to study law before joining the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Mullah Mustafa Barzani, father of the current Kurdistan regional president, Masoud Barzani.
Talabani fought alongside Kurdish peshmerga forces in 1961 in a bid to acquire independence from Iraq. He took up arms against the government again in the 1970s, but by that time his relationship with Barzani and his son had developed into a damaging rivalry.
In 1974, Talabani split with the KDP and formed the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which he led until he died.
Following a bitter conflict in the 1990s between the Iranian-backed PUK and forces loyal to Masoud Barzani, the two sides came together to govern their semi-autonomous Kurdistan region. The partnership between the Kurdish factions was later cemented by a US-brokered truce.
Talabani's death comes after Iraq's Kurds voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence in a referendum on September 25.
The vote, rejected by Baghdad as invalid, has heightened the longstanding tensions between semi-autonomous Kurdistan and the central government, which has banned international flights to the region and is threatening to take control of Kurdish borders.
Iraqi Kurdish lawmaker Zana Said said Tuesday that Talabani was "the only president whose death saddens Arabs, Kurds and all other ethnicities."
"We pray to God that his death will help to bring back good relations between the brothers of Iraq."
Talabani suffered a stroke in 2012 and was flown to Germany to undergo treatment. He later returned to Iraq and left office soon afterwards in 2014.
One of his sons, Qubad Talabani, has been the deputy prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan since 2005.
nm/msh (Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa)