Jalal Talabani: Veteran Kurdish Leader and Iraqi President

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Former Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, who died Tuesday aged 83, was a charismatic leader of the Kurdish independence struggle who became Iraq's first non-Arab head of state.

The veteran pragmatist was elected by parliament to the largely ceremonial role in 2005, two years after the U.S. invasion that toppled his sworn enemy Saddam Hussein, and stayed in the position until 2014. 

He won plaudits during his tenure for trying to build bridges between Iraq's warring factions at the height of sectarian bloodletting between the Sunni and Shiite communities. 

Widely known as "Mam (Uncle) Jalal", the barrel-chested Talabani performed a delicate balancing act in a fraught region and was seen as being close to both the United States and its rival Iran. 

- Kurdish struggle -

Talabani long dominated Kurdish political life along with the current leader of Iraqi Kurdistan Massud Barzani. 

Born in 1933 in the rustic village of Kalkan in the mountains, as a young man he was quickly seduced by the Kurdish struggle for a homeland to unite a people scattered across Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.

After studying law at Baghdad University and doing a stint in the army, Talabani joined the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Mullah Mustafa Barzani, Massud's father, and took to the hills in a first uprising against the Iraqi government in 1961.

But he famously fell out with Barzani after he sued for peace with Baghdad -- the start of a long and costly internecine feud among Iraqi Kurds.

Talabani joined a KDP splinter faction in 1964, and 11 years later established the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) after Barzani's forces, abandoned by their Iranian, U.S. and Israeli allies, were routed by Saddam Hussein's army.

His long career in troubled modern Iraq witnessed some of the lowest moments in Kurdish history.

A renewed uprising in the 1980s against the Saddam regime sparked the notorious Anfal campaign of 1988 in which the army razed hundreds of Kurdish villages and gassed thousands of people.

More tragedy was to come in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf war, when the Kurdish uprising collapsed, prompting hundreds of thousands of people to seek refuge on the mountainous borders with Iran and Turkey in the heart of winter.

Western intervention allowed the Kurds to re-establish control over the three most northerly provinces of Iraq, but the rebel enclave fell far short of Kurdish claims for full independence amid Turkish opposition to statehood.

The rivalry between Talabani and the Barzanis, which degenerated into all-out war in 1993, finally led to rapprochement in 2002, when it became clear that Washington intended to topple Saddam.

- Health problems -

After his rise to the presidency following the first post-Saddam elections in Iraq, Talabani strove to smooth strained ties with Syria and Iran to help end their suspected support for the insurgency in Iraq. 

He was chosen again as president twice in 2006 and 2010. 

While he struggled to bring together Iraq's disparate factions, the married father-of-two also battled a string of health problems. 

In August 2008 he underwent successful heart surgery in the United States and in 2012 he was flown to Germany after suffering a stroke. 

Talabani eventually returned to Iraq in July 2014, just as the Islamic State group seized control of much of the country, and was replaced by his ally Fuad Masum.

The death of the veteran leader in Germany came just over a week after a controversial referendum that saw over 92 percent of Kurds vote for independence. 

The ballot, rejected by Baghdad as illegal, has caused major tensions between the Kurds and central Iraqi authorities, which have cut off international flights to the region and threatened further action.

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