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Iraqi Kurds mourn death of former president Jalal Talabani

Former Iraqi president Jalal Talabani who died on Tuesday
By Susannah George

Flags flew at half-mast across Iraq's northern autonomous Kurdish region on Wednesday as Iraqi Kurds began observing a week of mourning following the death of the country's former president, Jalal Talabani, once a symbol of unity.

Mr Talabani's death in a Berlin hospital on Tuesday afternoon, at the age of 83, came just days after Iraqi Kurds' controversial referendum on independence that has angered Baghdad and the region.

A longtime Kurdish guerrilla leader, in 2005 Mr Talabani became the head of state of what was supposed to be a new Iraq two years after the country was freed from the rule of Saddam Hussein. He was seen as a unifying elder statesman who could soothe tempers among Iraq's Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.

He suffered a stroke in 2012, after which he was moved to Germany for treatment and faded from Iraq's political life.

Sadi Ahmed Pire, a spokesman for the Kurdish party which Mr Talabani headed, said on Wednesday that his burial would take place in the city of Sulaimaniyah over the weekend.

Following news of Mr Talabani's death, leaders across Iraq and beyond released statements expressing their condolences.

Mr Talabani was "a longstanding figure in the fight against dictatorship and a sincere partner in building a new democratic Iraq", Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi said in a statement posted on Facebook on Tuesday.

Kurdish regional president and longtime Talabani rival Masoud Barzani described him on Twitter as a "comrade". He also extended his condolences to the Kurdish people and Mr Talabani's family.

The United Nations described Mr Talabani as "a leading voice of moderation, dialogue, mutual understanding and respect in Iraq's contemporary politics" and a "patriot of unique wisdom and foresight".

"From the battlefront trenches in the 1980s during the struggle against dictatorship to the halls of power in Baghdad in the past decade, 'Mam Jalal' worked for and promoted national rights," Jan Kubis, the UN's special representative to Iraq said in a written statement late on Tuesday, using Mr Talabani's Kurdish nickname which translates as "Uncle Jalal".

But the Kurdish referendum on September 25 reflected how hopes for a unified Iraq have faded over the years. At the time of the vote, Mr Talabani had been out of politics for nearly five years, but his death was a reminder of the country's frayed sectarian and ethnic ties, now nearly at the point of unravelling.

The Kurds voted overwhelmingly in support of breaking from Iraq to form an independent state, sending tensions spiralling with the central government in Baghdad and with Iraq's neighbours, who fear similar Kurdish separatist sentiment on their soil.

The referendum vote, which was led by Mr Barzani, is not expected to lead to a Kurdish state anytime soon and has further isolated the small landlocked region. Iraq and its neighbours have rejected the vote, and Baghdad has banned international flights and threatened to take control of the autonomous Kurdish region's borders.

"I wish I could ask Mam Jalal how to try and control this fire," said Mr Pire, the spokesman for Mr Talabani's political party, referring to the escalated tensions with Baghdad and the Kurdish region's neighbours stoked by the referendum vote.

"He was a singular figure that cannot be replaced," he added. "He was a president for all of Iraq, not just the Kurds."

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