Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Kurds Celebrate Ascent of “Uncle Jalal”
Uniformed soldiers danced in the streets, supporters cheered and loudspeakers boomed patriotic tunes throughout Kurdistan following the announcement that a Kurdish leader, Jalal Talabani, is the first democratically elected president of Iraq.
But nowhere were the April 6 celebrations quite as heartfelt as in Koysinjaq, the hometown of the man they call “Mam”, or Uncle, Jalal.
In Koysinjaq, more commonly known as Koya, the streets filled with thousands of jubilant residents. Car horns honked and children waved the Kurdish flag.
“No one has seen democracy in Iraq before. From now on, it will spread throughout Iraq,” said Amir Baqi Agha, 54, a veteran peshmerga or guerrilla fighter. “As a resident of Koya, I’m very happy and proud that a man from my town has been named Iraqi president.”
Sheikh Salah Sharaf, the governor of Erbil and a relative of Talabani, said Koya has always been known as a centre for intellectuals and resistance figures and if Talabani had proved the “kingmaker” in contemporary politics, it was as a result of this environment.
“Every Kurdish political faction has had a branch in Koya, even the ones based outside Iraqi Kurdistan. Of course, being brought up in an atmosphere like this has an impact on him,” said Sharaf.
Twenty-four year-old Rekan Qadir, a teacher at the Institute of Fine Arts in Koya, said Talabani’s success was a final reward for a population which had persisted in the face of oppression, “I think the dreams of the Kurdish people and the martyrs have come true. With this step, we feel that we are no longer second-class citizens.”
Talabani was selected as president by the new Iraqi National Assembly two months after the election. His first responsibility will be to appoint Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shia Arab, as prime minister, so that a government can be formed.
The distribution of top posts among Iraq’s various ethnic and religious groups represents the culmination of weeks of negotiations between the Shia-led United Iraqi Alliance, which won the bulk of votes in January’s election, and the Kurds, whose second place assured them a role in shaping how Iraq is governed.
Accepting the position in a televised broadcast watched by many Iraqis, including Talabani’s old nemesis Saddam Hussein from his Baghdad cell, the new president spoke of his plan to create “a democratic, free Iraq with individual and public freedoms”.
In an effort to bury the divisions of the past, Talabani said that his would be a presidency for all the people of Iraq. He called on members of parliament to “realise a new Iraq free of tribal and ethnic discrimination, repression and autocracy, and to work towards the formation of an independent and united Iraq on the basis of democracy, federalism, human rights and equal citizenship for all”.
Talabani was born in 1933 and brought up in the Koya neighborhood of Bayiz Agha. He began his political activities in the Fifties, joining the Kurdistan Students’ Union which then became affiliated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP. It was only a matter of time before he had risen through the ranks to become a senior KDP party member.
Talabani was schooled in Koya until he left for secondary school in Erbil, then Kirkuk and finally Baghdad, where he enrolled in law school. Sheikh Sharaf describes the young Talabani as an earnest man, “He was always busy reading.”
His politics drew the ire of the Baath regime and in 1963 the Talabani family home in Koya was burned down by government forces.
It was a long road that looked unlikely to end in a presidency. The Shah of Iran’s alliance with Saddam Hussein in 1974 caused the Kurdish revolt to collapse. In 1975, Talabani formed a new group, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK, to reinvigorate the campaign and a year later, they declared war on the central government.
Since then, 900 people in Koya have paid with their lives. The Anfal campaign, waged by Saddam Hussein’s regime against the Kurds in 1988, led to the destruction of more than 170 of the surrounding villages and the death or disappearance of 1,700 people.
The Gulf War of 1991 was closely followed by the uprising in which the Kurds took advantage of Saddam’s weakened position to liberate their region and establish a self-ruling region in the north.
For former peshmerga Baqi Agha, Talabani’s elevation to the presidency has made the sacrifices Kurds have made over the decades worthwhile, “Neither my struggle nor that of my friends has been in vain.”
Despite the legacy of the past, Kurds in Koya insist that their leader will treat all Iraqis fairly, regardless of their background.
Huner Abdullah, a wood sculptor, said, “Talabani is a man of justice, he won’t discriminate against people. He is not biased in a national way.”
Abdullah believes the influence of Koya’s son will go beyond Iraq, “Any change here will have an impact elsewhere. I hope Iraq will be a starting point for radical change across the whole Middle East.”
Jalal Talabani was sworn in as president on April 7, and celebrations continued throughout the weekend.
Mariwan Hama-Saeed is an IWPR translator in Sulaimaniyah.
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