Jalal Talabani, whose presidency of post-Saddam Iraq symbolised the resurgence of the country’s long-oppressed Kurdish people, was brought home on Friday to be buried.
Iraqi and Kurdish TV showed the Iraqi Airways plane, transporting Talabani‘s coffin from Germany where he died on Tuesday at age 83, landing in Sulaimaniya, his home city in northern Iraq.
The plane was given special exemption from a ban on international flights imposed a week ago by the Iraqi government following Kurdistan’s independence referendum last month.
Talabani, a veteran leader of the Kurdish struggle for self-determination, stepped down as president in 2014, after a long period of treatment following a stroke in 2012.
A 21 gun-shot salute was given for the coffin draped in the red, white and green Kurdish flag, stamped in its middle with a golden sun. A military band played the Iraqi national anthem, “Mawtini” (my nation), and Chopin’s funeral march.
The Kurdish flag on the coffin triggered a wave of protests on media and social media close to Shi’ite political groups which support the Iraqi government. Al-Etejah TV interrupted its broadcast “because the coffin was not draped by the Iraqi flag”.
Talabani was the first non-Arab president of Iraq, elected in 2005, two years after the US-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Arab, empowering the Shi’ite Arab majority and allowing the Kurds – who are mostly Sunni Muslims – to have a recognised autonomous region with its own military force, the peshmerga.
Iraqi President Fuad Masum, a fellow Kurd who replaced Talabani in 2014, presided at the ceremony at the airport, with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif the highest ranking foreign official in attendance.
Masoud Barzani, the president of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) which organised the independence referendum, sat between Masum and Talabani‘s widow Hero.
Talabani had been too ill to express his views about the referendum but his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party gave it only lukewarm support.
Unlike Barzani Talabani had good ties with Iran and the Iranian-backed Shi’ite groups that effectively rule in Baghdad.
The Baghdad government, Iran and Turkey all strongly opposed the referendum.
Kurdish media and social media were rife with complaints about the flight ban which, they said, prevented larger international participation at the funeral.
Born in 1933 in what was then a monarchy ruled under British mandate, Talabani studied law at Baghdad University, joined the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in 1946 and by his mid-twenties was a lieutenant to the independence movement’s patriarch, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, the father of the current KRG chief.
He split from the KDP and formed the PUK in 1974 drawing support from the urban elite and also from the small Kurdish Shi’ite community. He regarded himself as a modern, socialist, urban alternative to the tribal authority wielded by the elder Barzani.
Talabani‘s harshest lesson came in 1988 when Iraq gassed Kurdish towns near the Iranian border during an Iranian-PUK offensive in the waning days of the Iran-Iraq war.
In the brutal seven-month battles, Kurds accused Iraqi forces of killing tens of thousands of men, women and children and uprooting many more from their homes.
One of his sons, Qubad, is the current deputy prime minister of the KRG.