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Over His Dead Body:
At His Funeral, Senior Kurdish Statesman Unites Foes

Histyar Qader
Even in death, senior Kurdish statesman, Jalal Talabani, brought fighting factions together at his funeral. It remains to be seen whether peripheral meetings at the memorial will have any lasting effect.
12.10.2017  |  Erbil
The coffin of deceased leader, Jalal Talabani, in Sulaymaniyah. (photo: حمه سور)
The coffin of deceased leader, Jalal Talabani, in Sulaymaniyah. (photo: حمه سور)

Even in death, senior Kurdish statesman, Jalal Talabani, brought fighting factions together at his funeral. It remains to be seen whether peripheral meetings at the memorial will have any lasting effect.

One of the leading figures of Kurdish politics in Iraq, Jalal Talabani, died last week in a hospital in Berlin. He had been ill for some time after suffering a stroke in 2012. And when his body returned to Sulaymaniyah on October 6, crowds gathered on the streets bearing flowers.

Talabani was known as a statesman and diplomat, an expert negotiator who had brought together opposing sides to an argument more than once. And it seemed that in death, he would do so again.

The KDP appear to think that their chief, Barzani, is ideally suited to play the unifying role that Talabani was once famous for.

Some of the meetings over Talabani’s casket were odd, given the history between some of those who were there. This included the Iranian foreign minister as well as Kurds who are trying to gain more rights in Iran, and representatives of the Turkish government who were confronted by members of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, who are considered terrorists inside Turkey. The PKK were even wearing their official uniforms.

Other meetings held around the funeral were deliberate though and may have political consequences.

Since the Iraqi Kurdish held a controversial referendum on independence, asking whether the semi-autonomous region, which already acts a lot like a state within a state, should secede from Iraq, the Iraqi government has done its best to dissuade the Kurds from going any further. One of the moves was to close Kurdish airports to international flights. However, when Talabani’s body was brought back from Germany, it was flown directly from Europe and into Sulaymaniyah.

Locals said they were happy because at least “Mam Jalal” – or Uncle Jalal in English – was able to break the embargo.

The current leader of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, had insisted that his old foe and colleague’s body be brought directly to Sulaymaniyah and not through Baghdad.

“The Iraqi prime minister and the president wanted Mam Jalal’s body to come to Baghdad where they wanted to hold ceremonies for him,” explains Abdullah Aliyawai, adviser to the Iraqi president. “But his family pointed out that with the limited time, ceremonies should be held at Sulaymaniyah airport.”

The next Kurdish-Iraqi stoush focused on the flag draped on Talabani’s coffin. This was the Kurdish flag, not the Iraqi one.

 

Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani greets the coffin bearing Jalal Talabani's body.

 

Aliyawai admits this was an error and some Iraqi Kurdish media said that Iraqi guests left the event, seeing this as an insult. Some Iraqi TV channels interrupted their broadcast of the event because of the flag too, seeing it as a Kurdish insult aimed at the Iraqi Arabs. However Kurdish commentators insisted that Talabani had been Kurdish before he was Iraqi.

Despite these issues there were several positive meetings held beside the main memorial event. Barzani, who has been a prime mover behind the independence referendum, met with two senior Iraqi politicians, Osama al-Nujaifi and Ayad Allawi. He also met with Salim al-Jibouri, the current speaker of the Iraqi parliament.

No meetings of note were held between Shiite Muslim politicians, with whom the Kurdish MPs have traditionally been allied, and in fact, the Shiite Muslim alliance of parties issued a statement criticizing Barzani’s dalliances with the Sunni Muslim politicians. Even though the meetings were described as informal, that did not make them less important, was the message.

Aliyawai says the side-line meetings definitely improved relations between the Iraqi Kurds and the Sunni Muslim politicians.

“There were good meetings at the memorial events,” agrees Arez Abdullah, a leading member of the PUK. “But there are two approaches to this issue at the moment. One involves dialogue, the other involves putting more pressure on the Kurdish. We should support the idea of dialogue and it is up to the PUK [the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Talabani’s party] to maintain a balanced relationship with Shiite Muslim politicians.”

The memorial service also saw Iraqi Kurdish politicians, who have been at loggerheads for around two years now, come together. The speaker of the Iraqi Kurdish parliament, Yusuf Mohammed, who was banned from entering parliament buildings by Barzani’s security forces in 2015, met with Barzani. Together Mohammed and Barzani placed a wreath on Talabani’s coffin.

An atmosphere of rapprochement also saw a meeting between Barzani’s party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, and Mohammed’s Change movement at the latter’s headquarters in Sulaymaniyah. Kurdish Islamic parties, who have also been opposed to Barzani of late, were also at the meeting.

That is the closest the Change movement and the KDP have been in months. This was not a coincidence, Shorsh Haji, spokesperson for the Change movement, told NIQASH. “Salahuddin Bahauddin [head of the Kurdistan Islamic Union] asked Nechirvan Barzani [the region’s prime minister and senior member of the KDP] to visit with the Change movement and that’s how it happened,” Haji recounts. “Politics were discussed but no new plans were mooted.”

Perhaps reflecting that things are not as rosy as those meetings make it seem, a leading member of the KDP contradicted that story and said that it was actually Massoud Barzani who arranged the meeting. The meeting showed that the Iraqi Kurdish people are united, posits Fazil Basharati of the KDP. “The participation of all parties in the mourning is proof,” he continued. “All parties should respect that reality: That we are all united under one Kurdish roof.”

The KDP appear to think that their chief, Barzani, is ideally suited to play the unifying role that Talabani was once famous for.

Mohammad Baziani, director of the Al-Huda Centre for Strategic Studies, believes that Barzani will not be able to fulfil the role that Talabani played so well, maintaining flexible, open lines of communication between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan. He thinks that the recent link between the Iraqi Kurds and their Shiite Muslim counterparts in Baghdad has been irreparably broken.

“Talabani’s absence will force Barzani to act as the ‘big leader’ even more,” Baziani says. “He will be forced to reconcile with his opponents and make concessions.”

 

The fact that the coffin was draped with the Kurdish flag rather than the Iraqi one was seen as worrying by some Iraqis.

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