Talabani’s death ends an era in Kurdish politics
In the summer of 1991 I was running after a news story in the north of Iraq, during the first Gulf War, when I received a warning from a British army officer based at the Sirseng air strip near the summer home of Saddam Hussein.
“If you are heading up to Amadiya, you’d better stay away from this character for your own sake. He does not represent us,” the captain warned me.
The “character” he was referring to was another British citizen who had been arrested by U.S. troops based in Silopi, in southeast Turkey, but was now patrolling in northern Iraq with an Israeli-made Uzi machine gun.
I wanted to find this man and talk to him for a good story. And it was not difficult to find him in the mostly deserted Amadiya. Taller than 1.80 meters, wearing paratrooper boots, camouflage trousers, sunglasses, a button-down blue and white shirt and tie, he was certainly quite recognizable – especially as at the time he was trying to fix a satellite dish on the roof of an empty house. He identified himself as
Stephen Crouch and said he was working for “Her Majesty,” with a duty to prevent clashes between Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani.
Next year, in 1992, Saddam Hussein approved the establishment of an autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, along the Iranian and Turkish borders. Then Turkish President Turgut Özal provided both Barzani and Talabani with Turkish passports, as a symbol of good intentions because they both had difficulties in travelling with Iraqi passports.
Next year, in 1993, it was Talabani who helped facilitate a unilateral ceasefire announced by outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) Abdullah Öcalan in the PKK’s fight against Turkey. A political solution was very close in May 1993 but everything collapsed when PKK militants ambushed unarmed soldiers in eastern Turkey, killing 33 of them.
However, it was also Talabani who in July 2003 pointed to Turkish soldiers in Sulaymaniyah - there to monitor ceasefire between the KDP and the PUK - and let them be arrested by U.S. troops in a humiliating manner, leading to one of the low points in Turkey-U.S. relations. Earlier that year the Turkish Parliament rejected a government motion to take part in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, while the Iraqi Kurds volunteered to collaborate.
Talabani was elected as the president of Iraq in 2005 after the toppling and execution of Saddam Hussein. With his incredible political flexibility and pragmatism, Talabani again played a role in mending fences between Turkey and the KRG, now led by Barzani.
He had been a key figure in Kurdish politics right from the age of 17, when he established the youth organization for the KDP under the leadership of Mullah Mustafa Barzani, Masoud Barzani’s father. However, their paths parted ways when Talabani established the PUK in 1975 after the collapse of a Kurdish uprising, when Iran withdrew its support due to an agreement with Iraq.
He had struggled with bad health conditions since he suffered a stroke in 2012, and he passed away at the age of 83 on Oct. 3, at a time when Barzani is trying to get his de facto referendum of Sept. 25 recognized for Kurdish independence from Iraq.
Talabani’s death marks the end of an era in Iraqi Kurdish politics, leaving the stage to Barzani alone and taking away Barzani’s partner in the good cop-bad cop scene whenever necessary.