Thousands of Iraqi Kurdish mourners, Iraqi officials and world dignitaries have attended the funeral of Jalal Talabani, the country’s first president in a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq and once a symbol of national unity.
Talabani was laid to rest on Friday in Sulaimaniyah, the second-largest city in Iraq’s Kurdish region, after his casket – draped in the Kurdish flag – was flown back from Berlin where he died at a hospital earlier this week.
From the airport in Suleimaniyah, a motorcade carried the casket to a nearby hill for burial. Crowds poured into the streets, following the funeral procession on foot, carrying flags and posters bearing Talabani’s image and the emblem of the political party he founded more than three decades ago, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
Many threw flowers on top of the coffin.
While Talabani traces his roots to a small village in Iraq’s north, Sulaimaniyah is the seat of his political power.
A long-time champion of Kurdish self-rule, Talabani, also established himself as a national statesman after accepting the largely symbolic office of the presidency two years after the 2003 US invasion toppled Saddam.
He held the post from 2005 to 2014, but faded from Iraqi political life after suffering a debilitating stroke in 2012.
During his time as president, Talabani was seen as a symbol of unity, a politician able to manage tensions between Sunnis, Shi’Ites and Kurds that in Iraq often erupt into violence.
Talabani’s death in Germany on Tuesday came as Iraq struggles to manage the fallout of a controversial referendum on Kurdish independence spearheaded by his long-time Iraqi Kurdish political rival, Masoud Barzani.
While Barzani was present at the funeral and laid a wreath of white flowers at Talabani’s casket, Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was not in attendance.
Interior Minister Qassim al-Araji came to Sulaimaniyah to pay his respects in al-Abadi’s place.
Also in attendance were Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif; Iraq’s current president and fellow Kurd, Fuad Masum; US Ambassador to Iraq Douglas Silliman, and Jan Kubis, the top UN envoy in Iraq.
Baghdad, along with neighbouring Turkey and Iran, has rejected the Kurdish referendum and is demanding Kurdish leadership do the same. While the vote in non-binding and will not immediately create an independent state, many saw it as a symbolic affirmation of the Iraqi Kurdish dreams for a state of their own.