BAGHDAD – Thousands of mourners gathered in the Iraqi city of Sulaimaniyah to pay their respects to late Kurdish leader and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who was to be buried Friday in the town that was the seat of his political power.
Talabani, once a champion of Kurdish self-rule, is being remembered as a national statesman after accepting the largely symbolic office of the presidency two years after the 2003 U.S. invasion toppled Saddam Hussein. He held the post from 2005 to 2014 despite suffering a debilitating stroke in 2012.
His death came at a charged moment in national politics, with Iraq's Kurdistan region voting by an overwhelming majority to endorse independence in a non-binding referendum held last month. The results were rejected by Iraq's central government and neighboring Turkey and Iran, who have threatened to take punitive measures against the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq's north.
Iraq's central government closed the airspace over Kurdistan to international flights, and Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan threatened a total blockade. The Turkish leader has not ruled out the possibility of a military invasion either. Ankara and Tehran are afraid their own sizeable Kurdish minorities will follow Iraqi Kurdistan's example and agitate for self-rule.
With Talabani's coffin arriving at Sulaimaniyah airport, Iraqi state TV hailed the late president as a national leader who would not have approved of the referendum called by his Kurdish rival and President of the Kurdish region, Masoud Barzani. Barzani and Talabani fought a bitter civil war in the 1990s that left thousands dead.
Talabani's casket was received at Suleimaniyah airport draped in a Kurdish flag before being moved in a motorcade through the region's second city.
Supporters mobbed the procession, some waving the green flag of Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party.
Talabani's casket was met at the airport by Iraqi leaders and foreign dignities, including Barzani and Iranian Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, mired in the fallout of the Kurdistani referendum, was conspicuously absent. Interior Minister Qassim al-Araji was there in his stead.