On Saturday July 20, the man that many hoped could save Iraq from a political and security conflict that threatens to tear the country apart, arrived at Sulaymaniyah airport. Jalal Talabani has been described as the country’s elder statesman; many politicians, from all part of the political spectrum in Iraq, believe that Talabani is the only one who would be able to heal the country’s wounds. Up until this week, Talabani was Iraq’s president; he remains the leader of one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s most powerful political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK.
Talabani has been absent for over 18 months though. The politician, who is in his 80s now, suffered a stroke and was flown to Germany in December 2012 where he has remained in hospital for almost all that time. There had been plenty of rumours about the ailing politician, including ones about his imminent return and his poor state of health.
Talabani’s return was a major media event, both inside and outside the country and the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. However videos and pictures of Talabani, as well as accounts from those who met with him upon his return, indicate that he is not the man he used to be.
Those who met with him reported that neither the stick he used to wield nor his jokes were as powerful as they used to be. These two things were always considered signs of his strength and of his excellent diplomatic skills.
Talabani who founded the PUK in the mid 1970s was known for using his stick to control unruly members of his party. Few of the leaders of modern-day PUK could say that they had never been struck with that stick. Senior members of the PUK still recall how, if they tried to argue with him, or to leave the party, they could expect to be hit by Talabani’s stick.
Talabani was considered a strong leader in that he managed to silence many of the dissenting voices within his own party. In fact he was so successful at this that his deputy and PUK-co-founder, Nashirwan Mustafa, eventually walked out and founded what is now another of Iraqi Kurdistan’s most powerful parties, the Change movement or Goran. The Change movement has become the PUK’s most intimidating competitor in local politics.
The lack of Talabani’s stick has had a clear impact on the PUK. The level of conflict inside the party has risen. For example, recently it had a lot of problems coming up with a candidate for the post of deputy prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan and then again, more recently, for president of Iraq. This week the country’s politicians chose Fouad Massoum, a close friend of Talabani’s, to succeed him.
So this week senior members of the PUK were finally able to meet with their leader personally again. Those who attended the meetings said that Talabani barely spoke; mostly he just listened.
“We thought: ‘we should not bother Talabani with political matters anymore’,” senior PUK member, Mullah Bakhtiar, told NIQASH.
Talabani has lost much of the strength in his arms and hands; certainly he can no longer raise his stick to berate unruly PUK members.
It was also obviously difficult for him to speak. Talabani is well known for his use of humour in a tight diplomatic scrape. He was the first Iraqi Kurd to take such a senior position in the Iraqi government as President and in order to mingle more easily with Arab politicians, some of whom doubtless considered him an enemy, he would often tell jokes in meetings he held.
After one particular meeting, local newspapers actually praised Talabani for showing, through his affability, that he was going to be different from past presidents of Iraq.
As local media organisation Rudaw adds, “Talabani is credited with keeping Iraq’s Shiite and Sunni leaders on the negotiating table, even during the country’s violent sectarian war”.
Another story: Some months before Talabani suffered a stroke a number of MPs came to him from Iraq’s different ethnic and religious groups. This included senior Shiite Muslim, Sunni Muslim and Iraqi Kurdish politicians. They wished to get rid of the Prime Minister, al-Maliki, and asked if Talabani would send a memo to Parliament withdrawing confidence from al-Maliki. In the end, not wanting to upset al-Maliki and the Iranians (with whom the PUK have closer ties), Talabani joked his way out the situation and that memo was never sent.
There is no doubt that as a politician, Talabani has been sorely missed, and especially by the Iraqi Kurds. It seemed as though he was a diplomatic conduit between al-Maliki and Iraqi Kurdistan’s President, Massoud Barzani. Since Talabani became ill, there has hardly been a relationship to speak of between Barzani and al-Maliki and tensions between the semi-autonomous region and Baghdad have been rising for some time. Many Iraqi Kurds believe nobody other than Talabani could restore this relationship.
However, judging by reports from those who have met Talabani this week, it seems unlikely that the politician once thought to be “ the magic ingredient” in this difficult multi-cultural recipe will be able to achieve anything. His stick lies dormant and he cannot tell any jokes. Sadly it seems Iraqi Kurdistan has lost Talabani’s diplomatic skills and political nous to his ill health forever.