Peter Khalil: I rise to commemorate the life of Iraq’s first elected president post the Saddam Hussein regime, Jalal Talabani, who passed away on 3 October. I want to express my deepest sympathies to the Talabani family, to the people of Iraq and to all the Kurds around the world. Jalal Talabani, commonly referred to as Mam Jalal, which translates as Uncle Jalal, was a larger than life political leader. He was the founder of one of the main Kurdish political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the PUK.
For over 50 years he was a committed resistance fighter turned political leader who fought and advocated for democracy and the rights of his people. During the 1960s, Mam Jalal served as a Peshmerga, the name given to a Kurdish fighter, which translates as ‘one who faces death’. Mam Jalal took charge of the Peshmerga battalions around Sulaymaniyah and Kirkuk. In 1970, he married Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, herself a former guerilla fighter. He excelled on the battlefield as well as off it, with a sophisticated leadership style. He was fluent in Arabic, Persian, French and English as well as his native tongue of Kurdish. He joined the Kurdish Democratic Party, the KDP, at 14. But he broke with the KDP in 1975 while in exile and founded his own party, the PUK, to rival the KDP.
From the time of Saddam’s accession to power in 1979 until the US-enforced no-fly zone in 1992, hundreds and thousands of Kurds in Iraq were killed by the Saddam regime. By 2003, the US had invaded Iraq, and Mam Jalal played a key role in fashioning Iraq’s new interim constitution. He was President of Iraq from 2005 to 2014, including being re-elected in 2010. Critically, he stabilised post-Saddam Iraq and played a crucial role in fostering a more democratic and inclusive nation.
I had the great pleasure of meeting Mam Jalal when I was posted in Iraq in 2003-04 and negotiating and working with him on the Peshmerga’s inclusion into the Iraqi defence and security forces and the new Iraqi Ministry of Defence. Mam Jalal was a genuinely warm and jovial person. We spent many days and nights at Sulaymaniyah under his protection and were fortunate to receive his generous hospitality. The feasts of delicious foods he prepared for us each time we met were very special and made those negotiations just a little bit easier. I think he was softening us up quite effectively. He was a very shrewd and gifted negotiator on behalf of his people. I also worked with his son, Qubad Talabani, the current Deputy Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, and he’s carrying on the legacy of his father.
Mam Jalal was a giant figure of the 20th and 21st centuries, and his achievements for the Kurdish and Iraqi people will be long-lasting. He’s no longer with us. His lifelong struggle to realise his dream of freedom for Kurds still shines brightly. As President of Iraq, he was a unifier. Whether Kurd or Arab Turkoman or Chaldean Assyrian, Sunni, Shia or Christian, he brought those people together. He will be missed and mourned by millions around the world for his passion, vision and achievement. For my part, I’ll miss him and that twinkle in his eyes. We will miss this good man. May he rest in peace.