The 71-year-old Jalal Talabani, widely referred to by Kurds as Mam (uncle) Jalal, has been active in Kurdish politics for most of his life.

A Baghdad University law graduate, Mr. Talabani is secretary-general of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) -- one of two key Kurdish parties controlling the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.

Based in Sulamaniyah, the PUK has traditionally drawn its support from among the urban Kurdish population. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Masood Barzani controls the northwestern provinces of Arbil and Dahuk.

The two parties were longtime rivals, but signed a formal peace treaty in 1998.

Mr. Talabani was forced to seek refuge in Iran in 1988, when the Iraqi government used chemical weapons against the Kurds. He returned to northern Iraq in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War.

After Saddam Hussein's ouster in April 2003, Mr. Talabani was appointed to the U.S. -backed Iraqi governing council, which was dissolved last June, when Iraq's interim government took over.