Magazine article The New Yorker

Mr> Big; Profiles

Magazine article The New Yorker

Mr> Big; Profiles

Article excerpt

On November 5th, the day Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death, Jalal Talabani, the longtime Kurdish guerrilla leader, who is currently Iraq's President, was in Paris, on a state visit. He was installed in the sumptuous Presidential Suite at Le Meurice, a gold-and-marble Louis XVI hotel on the Rue de Rivoli, overlooking the Jardin des Tuileries. I watched the verdict with Talabani in his suite, on a large plasma-screen television tuned to the satellite channel Al Arabiya. He sat in a gilded chair, and, when I glanced at him to see his reaction, his expression betrayed nothing. Soon, after a few curt words, Talabani got up and wandered off to his bedroom. One of his aides, part of an entourage travelling with him, tiptoed behind him. The aide reappeared a moment later to say that Talabani was sitting in an armchair, deep in thought.

Saddam's death sentence put Talabani in an awkward position. Saddam had been convicted for the mass killing of a hundred and forty-six people in the Shiite village of Dujail in 1982. If he was executed, he would not face a second trial, for the 1988 Anfal campaign, in which as many as a hundred and eighty-six thousand Kurds were killed. Talabani was on the record as being opposed to capital punishment, but, according to the Iraqi constitution, one of his duties was to approve death warrants. In public statements, he had finessed this problem by saying that he would respect any decisions made by Iraq's judiciary. Still, he was in a predicament.

After a while, Talabani returned, in a better mood. He sat down next to me, but we were interrupted by the arrival of two superbly dressed Frenchmen carrying large shopping bags from Faconnable and Ermenegildo Zegna. They approached Talabani, bowed deferentially, and took a pair of dark suits from the bags. One man brandished a measuring tape, and explained that they needed His Excellency to remove some of his clothes for a fitting. Talabani stood up and began struggling to take off his jacket. A valet rushed over to help.

Talabani, who is seventy-three and has the fat cheeks, brush mustache, and large belly of a storybook pastry chef, is renowned for his political cunning, his prodigious love of food and cigars, his sense of humor, his unflagging optimism, and his inability to keep a secret. He is known as Mam Jalal, which means Uncle Jalal in Kurdish. It is a term of both endearment and cautious deference; Talabani has a mercurial personality, with extreme mood swings. He has survived in Iraqi politics largely owing to an ability to outfox his opponents and, sometimes, his allies. Over the years, he has made deals with everyone from Saddam Hussein to Ayatollah Khomeini and both Bush Presidents. He is probably the only person in the world who can claim, truthfully and unapologetically, to have kissed the cheeks of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. Talabani refers to George W. Bush as his "good friend" but regards Mao Zedong as his political role model.

"There is no one like him," Adnan Mufti, a longtime friend of Talabani's, told me. "Mam Jalal can make two different policies at once; he can make war and peace at the same time."

Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a Shiite politician who is Iraq's national-security adviser, told me, "He's very difficult to define. If you are an Islamist, he brings you Koranic verses; if you're a Marxist, he'll talk to you about Marxist-Leninist theory, dialectics, and Descartes. He has a very interesting ability to speak several languages, sometimes"--he laughed--"with a very limited vocabulary. He has a lot of anecdotes and knows a lot of jokes. He is an extraordinarily generous person, and he spends like there is no tomorrow."

Rubaie mentioned a period in the sixties when Talabani was allied with Saddam. "One day he was a good friend of Saddam Hussein, and then he became a staunch enemy," he said. (In fact, Talabani flirted with Saddam twice more.) Rubaie saw nothing contradictory in this; Talabani, he said, was the ultimate pragmatist. …

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