AMMAN, Jordan – Iraqi President Jalal Talabani flew out of Jordan on Wednesday to return to his country after more than two weeks of treatment in an Amman hospital.
Jordanian authorities kept journalists away from Amman airport, but the official news agency Petra reported that Talabani's plane left for Iraq. A Petra reporter who saw Talabani board the plane said the president smiled and joked as he said goodbye to Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit and other Jordanian officials. He wore a black coat.
Iraqi Ambassador Saad al-Hayyani told The Associated Press that Talabani would fly direct to the Iraqi city of Sulaimaniyah, 160 miles northeast of the capital Baghdad.
Hundreds of people in traditional Kurdish clothes gathered in central Sulaimaniyah to welcome the president to his hometown. Some people sang and danced in the streets where drivers plastered their cars with posters of Talabani, honked horns and played loud music.
"Your return means new life to Kurdistan and a federal Iraq," said a banner hoisted outside the headquarters of Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan or PUK.
It was in Sulaimaniyah that Talabani collapsed on Feb. 25 and was unconscious as he was rushed to a local hospital. He recovered enough to be flown that evening to neighboring Jordan, where he was admitted to King Hussein Medical Center in Amman.
Doctors diagnosed him to be suffering from exhaustion and dehydration caused by lung and sinus infections.
Early this month, Talabani said his illness had perhaps been useful because it ensured that he received a full medical checkup. In an interview with AP Television News on March 1, he said he would return home to work for "a new, free, democratic, federal and united Iraq."
Among those waiting to welcome Talabani in Sulaimaniyah was Zainab Khalid, 53, who said: "I was grieving and crying everyday that the president was in the hospital, but today my happiness can't be described."
A 21-year old student of English at the Sulaimaniya College of Arts, Tarkot Karim, said Talabani had united Iraqis after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in a U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
"God forbid that anything bad happens to him," said Karim, "it would have a negative impact on all the Iraqi people — Arabs and Kurds."