Talabani welcomed home with open arms

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq – Thousands of cheering Kurds gave Iraqi President Jalal Talabani a hero’s welcome home yesterday from 17 days of medical treatment in Jordan after he collapsed and fell unconscious.

Motorists plastered their cars with portraits of the former Kurdish guerrilla leader, honked their horns and played loud music as they jammed the center of this northern city.

Many waved the flag of Iraq’s Kurdish region – a green, red and white tricolor with a yellow sun in the middle. Others danced in the streets carrying Talibani’s picture.

The 73-year-old president was flown to Jordan after he collapsed Feb. 25 in Sulaimaniyah, 160 miles northeast of Baghdad, and was admitted to King Hussein Medical Center in Amman. Doctors said he suffered from exhaustion and dehydration caused by lung and sinus infections.

Talabani, who seemed somewhat weakened and appeared to have lost a few pounds, said he would return to work this week.

“You will have to excuse me for not speaking longer to you,” he told thousands of supporters gathered in the city center.

“You, heroic people of Kurdistan, I greet you warmly and I thank you for your kind feelings. I want to pledge anew that I will always be the peshmerga (Kurdish militiaman) you have known me to be and to continue to struggle to achieve all your goals in a democratic, federal and united Iraq.”

A banner hoisted outside the headquarters of Talabani’s political party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, declared: “Your return means new life to Kurdistan and a federal Iraq.” In an interview with AP Television News earlier this month, Talabani said he would return home to work for “a new, free, democratic, federal and united Iraq.”

Counterposed against the joyous homecoming for the Iraqi president, at least 39 Iraqis were killed or found dead nationwide yesterday, victims of diminished but far from eradicated sectarian violence since the U.S.-led security drive began in Baghdad a month ago. Police said 16 of the dead were in Baghdad, and their tortured bodies were dumped throughout the city.

The U.S. military, meanwhile, reported that three American soldiers were killed yesterday by bombs or gunfire in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad and that a Marine died Tuesday during combat in the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Anbar province west of the capital.