SULAIMANIYAH - Tens of thousands of people gathered Friday for the funeral of Iraqi former president Jalal Talabani, in an emotional send-off for the veteran of the struggle for Kurdish self-rule.
Talabani died in Germany on Tuesday aged 83, barely a week after an Iraqi Kurdish vote for independence which has deepened divisions between the autonomous Kurdish region and Baghdad.
Central government figures and Iraqi Kurdish leaders including longtime Kurdish rival Massud Barzani attended his funeral at the airport of Sulaimaniyah, Talabani's longtime fiefdom in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.
After the ceremony, a vast crowd carrying pictures of the leader and the green flags of his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) blocked the funeral procession as it headed from the airport to the great mosque of Sulaimaniyah.
Many wept and some tried to kiss the car carrying his coffin, which took three hours to reach the mosque.
During a decades-long political career, Talabani was a key figure in Iraqi Kurdish politics.
He later became Iraq's first federal president of Kurdish origin, serving from 2005 to 2014.
Barzani, president of the autonomous Kurdish region, and prime minister Nechirvan Barzani waited at the airport as Talabani's coffin arrived on a flight from Germany despite a Baghdad-imposed ban on international flights into the Kurdish region.
A red carpet and a guard of honour stood on the tarmac as his widow Hero and two sons alighted from the plane.
Iraqi President Fuad Massum, also a Kurd, Interior Minister Qassem al-Araji, a Shiite, and parliament speaker Salim al-Juburi, a Sunni Arab, represented the Baghdad government.
They were joined by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Kurdish representatives from Iran, Syria and Turkey.
Barzani and Massum each placed a large wreath of white flowers near Talabani's coffin, which was draped in the red, white, green and yellow colours of the Kurdish flag.
- Week of mourning -
The Iraqi national anthem and then the Kurdish anthem were played, before the coffin was taken to the city's grand mosque.
Earlier this week, Barzani said he had lost "a friend and a brother" and announced a week of mourning during which Kurdish flags would be flown at half-mast.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a fierce opponent of last week's referendum, hailed Talabani for his role in "building a federal Iraq".
Talabani had "described Iraq as a bouquet made up of several flowers," he said, referring to the country's different communities.
In Sulaimaniyah, Talabani was known affectionately as Mam (Uncle) Jalal.
Born in 1933 in the rustic village of Kalkan in the mountains, as a young man he was quickly seduced by the Kurdish struggle for a homeland to unite a people scattered across Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.
After studying law at Baghdad University and doing a stint in the army, Talabani took to the hills in a first uprising against the Iraqi government in 1961.
But he famously fell out with Barzani after he sued for peace with Baghdad -- the start of a long and costly internecine feud among Iraqi Kurds.
Decades later, he won plaudits for his efforts as head of state to build bridges between Iraq's warring factions at the height of sectarian bloodletting between the Sunni and Shiite communities.
Talabani's death came after Iraq's Kurds voted 92.7 percent in favour of independence in the September 25 referendum.
The vote was rejected as illegal by the federal government in Baghdad as well as by Iraq's neighbours.
Baghdad retaliated last week by banning all international flights in and out of the Kurdish autonomous region except for humanitarian cases.
But Prime Minister Abadi said Thursday he did not want an armed conflict with Iraqi Kurds, adding that "federal authority must prevail".
He appealed to Kurdish peshmerga forces to work with the Iraqi army "as we have worked together against Daesh (the Islamic State group), to guarantee citizens' safety."