Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who returned home Saturday from months of convalescence abroad, is an avuncular politician and a skilled negotiator toughened by his decades-old struggle for Kurdish independence.
His current state of health is unknown, with journalists having been kept away from the Sulaimaniyah airport where the Iraqi leader arrived on a private aircraft after spending 18 months in Germany receiving treatment following a stroke.
The 80-year-old flew into an Iraq suffering one of its worst crises in years after jihadist-led insurgents took control of swathes of the country last month, with lawmakers ill-equipped to counter the onslaught as they struggle to form a new government after April polls.
It is unclear what impact the return of the former Kurdish rebel leader will have on Iraq’s febrile politics, but his years of experience building bridges between the country’s divided factions could help ease tensions.
“Frankly, he is essential, with respect to his ability to negotiate, to address issues, and his ability to work with different politics and governments with different interests,” said Adnan al-Mufti, a close friend and senior member of Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party.
The PUK is one of two parties which have historically dominated Iraq’s autonomous northern region of Kurdistan, although its fortunes have flagged in Talabani’s absence.
The only non-Arab president of an Arab-majority country, Talabani won plaudits during the height of Iraq’s post-invasion sectarian war for working to mediate between the country’s Sunni Arab minority and Shiite majority.
– Charisma –
He also won praise for attempting to reconcile Iraq’s Arab and Kurdish factions, and for striving to smooth strained relations with Syria and Iran.
“He understands others, and has faith in the possibilities of politics… He knows there are shared interests, and we must be careful of others’ interests,” Mufti said.
With good ties with both Iran and the United States, Talabani has never been afraid of risky political moves and unorthodox alliances.
Born in 1933 in the mountain village of Kalkan, the young Talabani was quickly won over 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, he joined the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Mullah Mustafa Barzani, father of current Kurdistan regional president Massud Barzani, and took to the hills in a first uprising against the Iraqi government in 1961.
But he famously fell out with Barzani, who 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.
Eleven years later, he established the PUK after Barzani’s forces, abandoned by their Iranian, US and Israeli allies, were routed by Saddam Hussein’s army.
Some say his experience as a soldier, a rebel and a politician has sharpened his political skills and honed his negotiating tactics.
“He’s a very clever politician, a very charismatic person,” said Asos Hardi, a Kurdish journalist and expert on the local politics.
– Mercurial or pragmatic? –
Supporters say Talabani is not afraid to change political course if he sees better opportunities, although that has opened him up to charges of being mercurial.
“He sometimes makes contradictory statements. Sometimes when he does something he goes to the end, not leaving any space to step back,” Hardi said.
“The next day you would see him step back, so that has made some people not believe what he says.”
Still, one thing both Hardi and Mufti agree on is what they describe as the bespectacled and barrel-chested Talabani’s sense of humour and optimism in the face of adversity.
In August 2008, the married father of two underwent successful heart surgery in the United States, then in 2012 he was flown to Germany after suffering a stroke, casting doubt over his ability to ever return to Iraq.
Yet Talabani, affectionately known in his mountainous northern fiefdom of Sulaimaniyah as Mam (Uncle) Jalal, is known for collecting jokes about himself and recounting them to colleagues.
Hardi said Talabani once told a Kurdish television channel that during his commute between his mountain home and Sulaimaniyah city, he kept seeing a man drinking alone by the side of the road.
One day, Talabani decided to stop and join him for a drink, but the man didn’t know who he was.
“I am the president of Iraq,” Talabani said.
“President of Iraq?” the disbelieving man said. “You’ve only had one glass. If you finish the bottle, you’ll think you’re Barack Obama.”