In his five years as Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani has shown a remarkable ability to rise above the ethnic and religious divisions defining the country's political scene — sometimes at the expense of his own Kurdish identity.
The 77-year-old statesman with his trademark grin, hearty laugh, portly girth and walrus-like mustache was elected to a second, four-year term in office this month and already has been thrust back into the public eye.
On Thursday, he formally asked incumbent Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to form a new government, fulfilling a key but rather symbolic duty as president. But only a week earlier, he gave an example of how he has flexed what real muscles his officially ceremonial position does have by refusing to sign off on the hanging of one of Saddam Hussein's closest aides, Tariq Aziz.
The move annoyed Shiite parties who have doggedly sought executions for the top figures of the Saddam era. But in rejecting the death sentence against Aziz — a Christian who was Saddam's longtime foreign minister — Talabani offered Iraq's small Christian minority a significant goodwill gesture at a time of deep uncertainty over its future in the wake of deadly attacks since 2003.
In polarized Iraq, most politicians press an unflinching sectarian or ethnic line — whether Sunni, Shiite or Kurdish — in a zero-sum game where another sect's win is often seen as your sect's loss. But Talabani, despite his past as a fighter for Kurdish autonomy, has given a sense of unity by largely avoiding presenting himself as the Kurds' advocate in power.
His elevation to the presidency had enough symbolic value in and of itself. It wasn't just that a member of a community brutally repressed by Saddam was now Iraq's head of state: It was also that a non-Arab was now leading a country long seen regionally as the protector of the Arab world's "Eastern Gate" against Persian enemies in Iran and later as a bastion of Arab nationalism.
Talabani was able to prevent any challenges to his presidency — unlike al-Maliki, his re-election by parliament was hardly ever in question — by positioning himself as a father figure for Iraq.
"I am casting off my Kurdish clothes and wearing Iraqi ones instead," Talabani told leaders of his Kurdish followers in 2005 as he became interim president — before being elected the following year to the first of his two, four-year terms.
"You must accept that," he said as some in the room shouted protests that he must not forget who he is.
Talabani's re-election this month does help enshrine the divvying up of the country's top jobs — the president a Kurd, the prime minister a Shiite Arab and the speaker of parliament a Sunni Arab. But even those who dislike having a Kurd as head of state see Talabani as the Kurd to have.
"We think that the president of Iraq should be an Arab because Iraq is an Arab state," said Talal al-Zubaie, a Sunni lawmaker. "But we do believe that Talabani has been a uniter and played the role of a peace dove among rival politicians for the sake of a united and strong Iraq."
Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the other main Kurdish political party have been allies of al-Maliki in his Shiite-led coalition — and they will remain so in the new government still being formed.
Still, Talabani has stood up to al-Maliki on some policies, causing public spats, and the prime minister has berated him for overstepping the authority of the presidency.
The prime minister holds executive powers, and the president's duties are largely symbolic. But Talabani has worked his informal influence heavily. "I don't have constitutional powers, but I have Mam Jalal powers," he often tells aides, using an affectionate Kurdish term for uncle.
During the bloody days of Sunni-Shiite strife in 2006 and 2007, Talabani approved the dispatch of Kurdish troops to parts of Baghdad to act as a buffer between the two sides. The troops won the trust of residents and helped reduce violence.
Talabani "was close to all parties during the sectarian strife and acted as a bridge between the Shiites and Sunnis," said Kurdish analyst Aref Qurbani.
It's a contrast to al-Maliki, widely seen as a sectarian partisan at heart.
For example, like most Shiite politicians, al-Maliki has been a vigorous supporter of purging from public life members of the late dictator's Baath party, even at the risk of alienating Sunnis who made up the backbone of the party. Talabani — whose people were equally massacred by Saddam — has advocated a softer approach, insisting that only Saddam loyalists known to have committed crimes should be covered by the "de-Baathification" policy.
Talabani's argument for sparing the life of the 70-year-old Aziz, Saddam's foreign minister, is that he is both Christian and too old. Aziz was sentenced to death last month by an Iraqi court on charges related to a Saddam-led campaign that hunted and executed members of al-Maliki's Shiite Dawa Party.
In 2007, Talabani also refused to sign off on the hanging of former defense minister Sultan Hashim al-Taie on the grounds that he was a soldier who could have only disobeyed orders at a risk to his own life. Al-Taie was convicted of genocide for a 1980s crackdown that killed up to 180,000 Kurdish civilians and guerrillas.
Born in a tiny village north of the city of Irbil in November 1933, Talabani has been at the heart of the Kurdish struggle for self determination for nearly four decades.
He has been an activist since age 13 when, as a student, he founded and led a movement to press for education reform. His involvement in Kurdish politics began five years later and in 1976 he and his comrades in the PUK, which he founded in neighboring Syria the previous year, took up arms against Baghdad to win self determination for Iraq's Kurdish areas.
In the post-Saddam era, many Sunnis and Shiites remain suspicious of the autonomous Kurds, believing they intend to split Iraq, and take heavily Arab and oil-rich parts of the north with them — particularly the city of Kirkuk.
Even while his party pushes Kurdish causes in parliament and the Cabinet, Talabani has studiously avoided taking a prominent role in issues like the fate of Kirkuk. He has largely confined his comments on the issue of Kirkuk that a clause in Iraq's new constitution stipulating that a census and a referendum should determine the fate of the city be implemented.
"One of the reasons why we support Talabani is that he was fair to all groups and forgot his being a Kurd during all his time as president," said Abdul-Hadi al-Hassani, a Shiite lawmaker allied with al-Maliki.
Ironically, it means Talabani's most vocal critics are fellow Kurds.
"The Talabani I see now is not the one who once struggled for democracy and freedom," said Ahmed Mirah, editor of the Kurdish political weekly Leven. "What I see is a man who wants to keep the presidency and pays no heed to the future of the Kurdish people or Kirkuk."
Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub in Amman, Jordan, and Yahya Barzanji in Sulaimaniyah, Iraq, contributed to this report.