Accessibility links

Iraq Inaugurates First Non-Arab President in Modern Times

  • Scott Bobb

Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani has been inaugurated president, becoming Iraq's first non-Arab head-of-state in modern history.

The inauguration of Jalal Talabani as president makes him the head of a state against which he struggled for most of his life.

His designation is a gesture of reconciliation and unity by the disparate leaders of Iraq who are struggling to erase a legacy of oppression and create a new, democratic state.

Mr. Talabani acknowledged as much when he met reporters after his election.

"It means that all Iraqis are equal according to the law. It means that there is no discrimination, that all Iraqis, Kurds, Arabs, regardless of their religion or their nationality, they are equal and they have the same right," he said.

The challenge for Mr. Talabani will be to guarantee a significant measure of autonomy to his Kurdish people, who aspire to an independent state, without undermining the arrangement that has placed him in this position of unprecedented influence.

In his acceptance speech Wednesday, Mr. Talabani said that after the most horrific dictatorship, he would spare no effort to fulfill the aspirations of all Iraqis.

He pledged to carry out his duties without sectarianism or racism, based on democracy and human rights, with respect for the Islamic identity of the Iraqi nation and respect for other religions.

Under Iraq's transitional law, the presidency is largely ceremonial, but the president and his two vice-presidents from the Shi'ite and Sunni groups have the power of veto over the parliament. Many expect Mr. Talabani, because his strong personality, to exert considerably more influence than implied by his job description.

Jalal Talabani was born 72 years ago (1933) into an religious Kurdish family in the village of Kalkan, 400 kilometers northeast of Baghdad. He was drawn to the Kurdish struggle at an early age and joined the Kurdistan Democratic Party-KDP of Mullah Mustafa Barzani at the age of 14 years. At the age of 18 years, he was elected a member of its central committee.

He went to Baghdad in 1952 to study law and helped found the Kurdish Democratic Youth Association. As a student leader, he visited the Soviet Union, China and Western Europe. He received his law degree in 1959 and subsequently served a brief stint in the Iraqi army.

Young Talabani was a member of the KDP's politburo during the 1960s and also helped publish several Kurdish newspapers, but he split with the Barzani leadership in the mid-1960s and eventually founded the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

The two rival groups began a lengthy feud that weakened the movement. At the same time the Kurds were the target of several major military operations by the Saddam Hussein regime. And more than 100,000 Kurds were forced to move from their ancestral homelands near Kirkuk.

Following Saddam's defeat in the Gulf war in 1991, the Kurds gained autonomy over three northern provinces.

After the fall of Saddam two years ago, Mr. Talabani and the KDP, now under the leadership of Mustafa Barzani's son, Massoud, mended their fences.

The two movements joined with other Kurdish parties in an alliance that won one-fourth of the seats in last January's parliamentary elections.

The goals of the alliance are to consolidate their gains since the war and gain control over the Kirkuk area and its substantial oil reserves.

On Kirkuk, President Talabani is likely to encounter opposition from other Iraqi groups. But he will find wide support for another Kurdish goal, which is ensuring that the oppression endured under Saddam Hussein never happens again.