I only met Jalal Talabani a few times, but each time was an unforgettable experience. Hania Mufti, my former colleague at Human Rights Watch, and I had crossed clandestinely into Iraqi Kurdistan from Iran in late 2002, as the winds of the Second Gulf War were gathering force. It was a rough journey, through areas still ravaged from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. So it was a relief to arrive in the mountain city of Sulaimaniya, the stronghold of Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), bitter rival to the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Massoud Barzani, based in Erbil. The Speaker of the PUK parliament, Adnan Mufti, welcomed us at the spartan hotel, pledging us his personal driver and handing over one of his cell phones, offering us any kind of assistance he could. Stunned by the hospitality, I turned to Hania and asked what was happening. "I saved his life a few years ago," she said nonchalantly. "When Saddam tried to poison them all."
A few days later, we drove even higher into the mountains to Talabani's safe house. In between, we had met most of the PUK leadership and documented the massive displacement caused from the city of Kirkuk by Saddam Hussein's ongoing "Arabization" program of the disputed city. Now we were going to meet the big man -- and what a giant of a man he was.
Walking past the guards with truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns, we entered a large banquet hall and found almost the entire PUK leadership gathered. At the head of the table was a short and very rotund man, known to everyone as Mam Jalal, next to his extremely thin, chain-smoking wife, Hero. Because of Human Rights Watch's work on the Anfal genocide against the Kurds, we were honored guests, and I was seated at Mam Jalal's right side.
Given Mam Jalal's girth, the chef had prepared him special low-fat kebabs, which he proceeded to devour at an impressive speed. Having worked for years in the Middle East, I had prepared myself for a formal occasion, trying to remember all the rules of proper conduct. Instead, I found myself in a crowd of jovial, often rambunctious friends who had been through hell and back together. At one point, Adnan Mufti, the speaker of parliament, came over with a big grin on his face and presented Mam Jalal with a set of calculations on a piece of paper, demonstrating that despite his low-fat kebabs, he had still eaten more fat than anyone at the table. Then someone told a joke about Mam Jalal meeting an old drunk on the streets of Sulaimaniya and trying to convince him that he, in fact, was really the president of Kurdistan.
The pre-war mood in much of Iraqi Kurdistan was jubilant like this, believing that the coming U.S.-led war on Saddam Hussein's Iraq would bring an end to their suffering and a new beginning -- maybe even a fulfillment of the Kurds's age-old dream of an independent state. Mam Jalal, who in many ways embodied that hope, spoke at length that night about his vision for the future, and didn't seem to mind it a bit when we probed him on some of the abuses committed in Kurdistan by forces under his command, like the secret and abusive detention of suspected Islamists.
A friend had given me a useful tip: when you meet Talabani, prepare just a few questions, and he'll talk forever. When you meet Massoud Barzani, leader of the rival Kurdistan Democratic Party, prepare a lot of questions, because the answers will be very short. My friend was right.
It was a meeting to remember. It is difficult now to recall those days of high hope when you look at the devastation the ill-planned 2003 invasion of Iraq left behind, and the challenges that still lay ahead in repairing the damage. The Kurdish region managed to avoid much of the brutal sectarianism that destroyed so many thousands of lives in other parts of Iraq, but its own issues are far from resolved. The tensions between Baghdad and the regional Kurdish administration remain on a knife-edge over the degree of autonomy that should be granted to the Kurds, the division of the proceeds of the oil resources found in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the future of the city of Kirkuk, which the Kurds depict as their Jerusalem but which Arabs and Turkmen claim with equal fervor. An entire swath of Iraqi territory from the Iranian to the Syrian borders remains "disputed territory," with many of Iraq's minorities -- like the Christians and Yazidis -- squeezed in the middle of a power dispute. Tensions often run so high they could easily spill over into open conflict.
After becoming president of a post-Saddam Iraq in 2005, Talabani often tried to serve as a moral compass for a country mired in bloodshed. He refused to sign off on executions -- even that of his arch-enemy Saddam Hussein -- citing his personal opposition to capital punishment. Ultimately, a compromise was reached where his deputies signed the execution orders, resolving the deadlock. Today, Iraq sadly is one of the world's leaders in executions, which are often imposed on people who were convicted in unfair trials.
Inside Kurdistan, all is not well either. Corruption is rife, as are abuses by the security forces, leaving a population restless with unfilled hopes and grievances. When the Arab Spring began, Talabani's PUK actually moved tanks into the streets of Sulaimaniya to intimidate protesters into going back home -- but leaving the need for democratic change and accountable governance unaddressed.
Mam Jalal didn't get to enjoy much of the post-war changes in Iraqi Kurdistan. As president of Iraq, he spent most of his time trying to be a peacemaker between the warring sectarian sides. It is a testimony to his character and personality that he continued to enjoy the respect of so many even during the darkest days in Iraq. He was a giant, in girth as well as in spirit. But he was just a man, and even a giant could be easily overwhelmed by the challenges posed by Iraq's sectarian war.