IRBIL, Iraq — As he stepped into office in 2005 to become Iraq’s first Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani told his followers, “I am casting off my Kurdish clothes and wearing Iraqi ones instead. You must accept that.” It was a symbolic call for unity: A longtime leader of Kurdish fighters, Talabani became the head of state of what was supposed to be a new Iraq, freed two years earlier from the rule of Saddam Hussein.

Talabani’s death on Tuesday was a reminder of how that experiment in unity has frayed nearly to the point of unravelling: Only a week earlier, Kurds voted overwhelmingly in a referendum in support of breaking away from Iraq to form an independent state, sending tensions spiraling with the central government in Baghdad and with Iraq’s neighbors, who fear similar Kurdish separatist sentiment on their soil.

At the time of the vote, Talabani had been out of politics for nearly five years after a 2012 stroke left him debilitated and permanently hospitalized. He died in a Berlin hospital at the age of 83 after his condition rapidly deteriorated, according to Marwan Talabani, a relative and senior official in the office of Talabani’s son, the deputy prime minister of the Kurdish region.

While in power, Talabani was seen as a unifying elder statesman who could soothe tempers among Iraq’s Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. But the country’s centrifugal forces only accelerated after he was hospitalized as Iraq battled the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State group and faced growing demands for Kurdish independence.

The referendum vote, which was led by his longtime Kurdish rival, regional President Masoud Barzani, is not expected to lead to a Kurdish state anytime soon and has further isolated the small land-locked region. Iraq and its neighbors have rejected the vote, and Baghdad has banned international flights and threatened to take control of the autonomous Kurdish region’s borders.

“If Talabani had been president of Iraq today for sure the approach would have been different, the balance in Kurdistan would have been different. I don’t think it would have come to a referendum in the first place,” said Joost Hiltermann, of the International Crisis Group. “Basically with Talabani’s incapacitation (Kurdish) strength in Baghdad diminished and … the weight shifted decisively to Barzani and the Kurdish region,” he said.

Talabani came from a generation of Kurdish leaders who spent decades fighting for self-rule and whose people were often brutally repressed by the central government.

Born in a tiny village north of the city of Irbil on Nov. 12, 1933, Talabani was in his early teens when he joined the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, the main Kurdish political force at the time trying to carve out an autonomous homeland for Iraq’s Kurds.

In the 1960s, he joined the Kurdish uprising against the Iraqi government. When the revolt collapsed in 1975, Talabani broke off from the Barzani-headed KDP to form the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK. To this day Kurdish politics in Iraq remains dominated by the two families: the Barzanis in Irbil and the Talabanis in Sulaimaniyah.

A year later, Talabani again took up arms against the central government and eventually joined forces with Iran in the Iran-Iraq war. In the late 1980s, Saddam launched the Anfal Campaign, in which more than 50,000 Kurds were killed, many by poison gas attacks.

As the U.S. prepared to oust Saddam in the 2003 invasion, Talabani’s PUK worked with the CIA. After Saddam’s fall, Talabani and Barzani came together to govern their autonomous region, but ultimately Talabani’s high profile took him to Baghdad.

Talabani is survived by his wife, Hiro Ibrahim Ahmed, and his two sons. One of them is Qubad Talabani, the deputy prime minister of the Kurdish region.

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