SULAIMANI, Kurdistan Region – The people of Kurdistan and Iraq have said farewell to Jalal Talabani, the first elected non-Arab president of Iraq who oversaw the immediate aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Talabani died in Germany on Tuesday. His body left Berlin Friday morning, flying directly to the Kurdish city of Sulaimani, arriving just before midday.
His wife Hero Ibrahim Ahmad and two sons Qubad and Bafel accompanied Talabani’s body.
Talabani’s coffin, draped with the Kurdistan flag, was greeted with a 21-gun salute at the airport. The national anthems of Iraq and the Kurdistan Region were then played.
The late leader was welcomed by local and foreign delegates, including Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani and Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, as well as Iraqi President Fuad Masum and Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.
Kurdish and foreign leaders have laid wreaths of flowers in tribute to the service of President Talabani. Wreaths were laid by Iraqi President Fuad Masum, President Barzani, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif, Iraq’s Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji on behalf of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, as well as United Nations envoy to Iraq Jan Kubis and the US Ambassador to Iraq Douglas Silliman, among others.
It took Talabani's coffin several hours to reach its final destination as crowds of mourning people hindered the process from going ahead as planned. Many people walked with the motorcade all the way from the airport to the Great Mosque, and then to the Dabashan hill where he was laid to rest.
Qubad Talabani, who is also Kurdistan’s deputy Prime Minister, speaking on behalf of the Talabani family thanked those who attended the funeral.
He said they received messages of condolences “from all four parts of Kurdistan.”
Qubad said that while the late leader was a father to him and his older brother Pafel, “He was an Uncle to all of you. He belonged to all of Kurdistan.”
He said that Talabani was more concerned about his public life as a politician serving his people as opposed to his private life.
“He chose Kurdistan, and chose the struggle of the people of Kurdistan over a normal life,” Qubad said, adding that they are proud of his service to the country.
Qubad added that his father worked tirelessly for Kurdistan and Iraq to achieve peaceful coexistence.
He asked the people to put their hands together and pledge that they will keep the unity that President Talabani had long advocated for.
“Spread the Mam message that we will always be united,” Qubad said using the Kurdish word for uncle.
Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said the fact that all of these thousands of people have come out to bid farewell to Talabani shows that Talabani served his nation. He added that the void his loss creates will be hard to fill in.
A group of women near the PUK’s main office in Sulaimani released 84 doves. Talabani, born in 1933, would have turned 84 in November. The party’s anthem sings that they are doves in time of peace and lions in times of war.
Many people have followed the coffin on foot as it departed the airport at the gate of the city and makes its way to the Great Mosque in the centre of Sulaimani.
A man holding a portrait of Talabani followed an old Kurdish tradition, covering himself with mud in front of the mosque.
The prayer for the dead was said at the mosque before transferring his body to Dabashan hill.
All Kurdish parties in the Kurdistan Region and elsewhere have sent delegates to Sulaimani to say goodbye to the Kurdish leader, including the Democratic Union of Kurdistan (PYD) from Syria and the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) of Turkey.
People began gathering throughout Sulaimani early this morning, waiting to receive Talabani back home.
For many Kurds, the death of their beloved uncle is like losing a member of their own family.
A woman holding a portrait of Talabani with tears in her eyes said that every Friday she visits the graves of her husband and two cousins, Peshmerga who were killed in battle. Today, however, she will attend Talabani’s funeral instead.
“I hope we will not lose the path of our martyrs,” she said.
A Kurdish man from Iranian Kurdistan told Rudaw in Sulaimani that Talabani’s death feels like “I lost my parents again.”
Talabani is known among the Kurds as Mam Jalal or Uncle Jalal. In later years, some of his party supporters began calling him Great Uncle.
While he is known for his pragmatic and compromising politics that set a balance between Iraq’s various components, including Arabs and Kurds, Shiite and Sunni Arabs, Talabani’s own party is most famous at home for being the first Kurdish party in Iraq to take the right to self-determination as an official slogan, adopted when he founded the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in 1975.
For the many millions of Kurds in Kurdistan and abroad, Talabani is remembered as a Peshmerga who fought for decades against the Iraqi dictatorship, ultimately replacing Saddam Hussein.
It was Talabani who first introduced the quota system for women representation at the party level and then pushed for the same measure in the Kurdish legislature. He suspended the death penalty and, when president of Iraq, he stuck to his principles and refused to sign Saddam Hussein’s death sentence handed down by the Iraqi court, despite the genocide the Baathist leader had committed against the Kurds.
Talabani died just a week after the people of Kurdistan in Iraq voted overwhelmingly in favour of leaving Iraq, a country Talabani once thought could exist as a united, democratic, and federal state where Arabs and Kurds could share wealth and power, living in peaceful coexistence.
Local media is portraying Talabani as a Kurdish leader who sacrificed his entire life to achieve the cultural and national rights of the Kurds.
In a famous 1992 speech delivered after a popular Kurdish uprising against the Iraqi regime, Talabani said that the oil-rich and multi-ethnic province of Kirkuk holds the key to solving the Kurdish issue in Iraq.
He opened his speech mentioning a group of Kurds killed by the regime in Kirkuk after the uprising.
“The fascist dictators in Baghdad believe that with the execution of 288 brave sons of Kurds, they can extinguish the fire of the Baba Gurgur [oil well],” Talabani told thousands of Kurds gathered in Erbil. “But they are daydreaming. So long as there is still a Kurd living, Kirkuk remains a city of Kurdistan. I believe that Kurdistan will give up just about any place, but there is not a Kurd, not even one single noble Kurd, that will give up Kirkuk and Kirkuk area.”
“They key to the solution of the Kurdish cause is Kirkuk, Kirkuk alone, and Kirkuk itself,” Talabani said, adding that the southern border of Kurdistan extend to the Hamrin Mountains.
At a rally in Sulaimani, heartland of Talabani’s PUK, before Kurdistan’s independence referendum, Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani said the mission to achieve the nation’s long-held quest for independence would have been easier if Talabani was in better health.
“My dear brother President Mam Jalal, I will never forget your brotherhood,” said Barzani at the time.
Last updated at 06:58 p.m.