ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - Jalal Talabani, whose presidency of post-Saddam Iraq symbolised the resurgence of the country’s long-oppressed Kurdish people, was brought home on Friday and borne to his burial through streets crowded with tens of thousands of mourners.
Iraqi and Kurdish TV showed the Iraqi Airways plane which carried Talabani’s coffin from Germany, where he died on Tuesday at the age of 83, landing in Sulaimaniya, his home city in northern Iraq.
A 21-gunshot salute was given for the coffin, draped in the red, white and green Kurdish flag stamped with a golden sun. A military band played the Iraqi national anthem, “Mawtini” (my nation), and Chopin’s funeral march.
The Kurdish flag on the coffin triggered a wave of protests on media close to Shi’ite political groups which support the Iraqi government. Al-Etejah TV interrupted its broadcast “because the coffin was not draped by the Iraqi flag”.
The plane that brought the body home was given special exemption from a ban on international flights to the Kurdish region imposed a week ago by the Iraqi government, in retaliation for a Kurdish referendum on independence.
Talabani, a veteran leader of the Kurdish struggle for self-determination, became Iraq’s president in 2005, the first person to hold the job after the overthrow of dictator Saddam Hussein in a U.S.-led invasion.
Although the presidency has few real powers, the decision to give it to a member of the Kurdish minority symbolised unity for Iraq under a constitution intended to share power among ethnic and religious groups. Executive authority lies in the hands of a prime minister from the Shi’ite Arab majority.
Talabani stepped down as president in 2014 after a long period of treatment following a stroke in 2012. His successor, Fuad Musam, also a Kurd, presided over the ceremony at the airport on Friday.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is demanding that the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) cancels the outcome of last week’s independence vote, did not come to the funeral. Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji represented the central government.
“The government delegation protested strongly because the Iraqi flag wasn’t put on Mam Jalal’s coffin, even though the national anthem was played,” said a government spokesman in a statement. Talabani is affectionately known as Mam, the Kurdish for “uncle”.
Holding pictures of Talabani and waving the green flags of his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party, tens of thousands gathered along the airport road and around Sulaimaniya Grand Mosque, where the prayer for the dead was held.
The funeral procession of a dozen SUVs struggled to make its way through the dense crowd from the mosque to his grave on a hill overlooking Sulaimaniya, near the Talabani family home.
The Dabashan hill was covered with people as he was laid to rest in early evening.
At the airport ceremony, Kurdish regional government leader Masoud Barzani, Talabani’s rival for decades in the movement for self-rule, sat between President Masum and Talabani’s widow Hero.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, the highest-ranking foreign official in attendance, repeated Tehran’s assertion that the independence vote was a “strategic mistake”, Iranian media said.
Talabani had been too ill to express his views about the independence referendum. His PUK party gave it only lukewarm support.
Unlike Barzani, Talabani had good ties with Iran and the Iranian-backed Shi’ite groups that effectively rule in Baghdad.
The Baghdad government, Iran and Turkey all strongly opposed the referendum. Washington, an ally of the Kurds for decades, had also urged them not to hold it.
Kurdish media and social media were rife with complaints about the flight ban imposed by Baghdad, which, they said, had prevented larger international participation at the funeral.
Born in 1933 in what was then a monarchy ruled under the British mandate, Talabani studied law at Baghdad University, joined the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in 1946 and by his mid-twenties was a lieutenant to the independence movement’s patriarch, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, Masoud Barzani’s father.
He split from the KDP and formed the PUK in 1974, drawing support from the urban elite and from the small Kurdish Shi’ite community. He regarded himself as a modern, socialist, urban alternative to the tribal authority wielded by the elder Barzani.
Talabani’s harshest lesson came in 1988 when Iraq gassed Kurdish towns near the Iranian border during an Iranian-PUK offensive in the waning days of the Iran-Iraq war.
In a brutal campaign, Iraqi forces killed tens of thousands of Kurdish civilians and uprooted many more from their homes.
Talabani’s PUK has remained the most powerful political force in his home city of Sulaimaniya, while Barzani’s KDP dominates the regional capital Erbil. One of Talabani’s sons, Qubad, is deputy prime minister of the Kurdish Regional Government.
Editing by Peter Graff and Andrew Roche