BAGHDAD, Iraq – Jalal Talabani has spent a lifetime fighting for Kurdish rights, first forming a secret student association at the age of 13 and later taking up arms against the Iraqi government.
Now, as the new president of Iraq, he takes his battle from the green, rolling hills of the Kurdish north to the heavily fortified Green Zone (search) of Baghdad, where he will fight to ensure that Iraq's new constitution protects Kurdish rights.
One of his biggest challenges will be Kirkuk (search), an oil-rich city 180 miles north of Baghdad that the Kurds want to incorporate into their self-governing region. The future of the disputed city is expected to be decided as lawmakers draft a final constitution by Aug. 15.
In the coming weeks, Talabani will also be overseeing the return of Kurds displaced by ousted leader Saddam Hussein.
After his election Wednesday, he promised to govern not just for the Kurds, but for all Iraqis "freed from the most horrific dictatorship."
He was greeted by a standing ovation, and he threw his hands in the air and clenched his fists together in a sign of unity.
Born in 1933 in the village of Kelkan, Talabani began his lifetime of resistance to Arab domination as a teenager, joining the Kurdish Democratic Party (search). He began studying law but had to go into hiding in 1956 to escape arrest for his political activities as founder and secretary general of the Kurdistan Student Union (search).
He eventually returned to law school and began work as an editor of two Kurdish publications. After graduating in 1959, he was called to military duty in the Iraqi army, serving as commander of a tank unit.
When the Kurdish north took up arms against the government in 1961, he led battles at home in Iraq — as well as diplomatic missions to Europe and elsewhere in the Middle East to seek support for the Kurds.
With the collapse of the Kurdish revolt in 1975, he founded the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (search), an effort to redefine the political movement. He then led an armed resistance against Saddam until 1988, when the Iraqi leader expelled Kurds from strategic areas in the north and gassed Kurdish towns near the Iranian border, killing tens of thousands of people.
After the 1991 Gulf War, the Kurdish regions — protected by U.S. planes that enforced a no-fly zone — enjoyed autonomy from the government in Baghdad. But Talabani and Kurdish Democratic Party leader Massoud Barzani (search) began fighting over control of the north. A U.S.-sponsored truce was signed in 1998, and both formed a Kurdish alliance for the historic, Jan. 30 elections, winning 75 seats in the 275-member parliament.