IRBIL, Iraq — Flags flew at half-staff 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, Jalala Talabani, once a symbol of unity.
Talabani’s death at a Berlin hospital on Tuesday afternoon, at the age of 83, came just days after the Iraqi Kurds’ controversial referendum on independence that has angered Baghdad and the region.
A longtime Kurdish guerrilla leader, Talabani in 2005 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.
Talabani 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 Talabani headed, said on Wednesday that Talabani’s burial would take place in the city of Sulaimaniyah over the weekend.
Following news of Talabani’s passing, leaders across Iraq and beyond released statements expressing their condolences.
Talabani was “a long standing 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 to Facebook on Tuesday.
The Kurdish regional president and longtime Talabani rival, Masoud Barzani, described him as a “comrade” in a statement posted to Twitter, also on Tuesday. Barzani also extended his condolences to the Kurdish people and Talabani’s family.
The United Nations described 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,” said Jan Kubis, the U.N.’s special representative to Iraq in a written statement late Tuesday night, using Talabani’s Kurdish nickname that translates to Uncle Jalal.
But the Sept. 25 Kurdish referendum reflected how hopes for a unified Iraq have faded over the years. At the time of the vote, 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 spiraling with the central government in Baghdad and with Iraq’s neighbors, who fear similar Kurdish separatist sentiment on their soil.
The referendum vote, which was led by Barzani, is not expected to lead to a Kurdish state anytime soon and has further isolated the small land-locked region. Iraq and its neighbors 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 Pire, the spokesman for Talabani’s political party, referring to the escalated tensions with Baghdad and the Kurdish region’s neighbors stoked by the referendum vote.
“He was a singular figure that cannot be replaced,” Pire added, “he was a president for all of Iraq, not just the Kurds.”
From Tehran, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed his condolences and said that “Talabani was definitely a distinguished figure,” the semi-official ISNA news agency reported Wednesday.
Rouhani also said that Talabani “had an important role in the national cohesion and unity of Iraq, and strengthened the political process to promote Iraq’s regional and international status.”
Talabani joined the Kurdish uprising against the Iraqi government in the 1960. When the revolt collapsed in 1975, he broke off from the Barzani-headed Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, to form the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK.
Though united in the push for independence, Kurdish politics in Iraq remain to this day dominated by the two families: the Barzanis in Irbil and the Talabanis in Sulaimaniyah.
In 1976, Talabani again took up arms against the central government and eventually joined forces with Iran in the Iran-Iraq war. In the late 1980s, Saddam launched the Anfal Campaign, in which more than 50,000 Kurds were killed, many by poison gas attacks.
Associated Press writer Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.