President Talabani returns to Iraq after medical treatment in Jordan

President Jalal Talabani returned to a hero's welcome in his hometown in Iraq's Kurdistan Wednesday after 17 days of treatment in a hospital in the Jordanian capital, where he was flown after collapsing and falling unconscious.

Talabani flew directly to Sulaimaniyah, where thousands of Kurds, some in traditional dress, gathered to welcome him home.

"You, heroic people of Kurdistan, I greet you warmly and I thank you for your kind feelings," Talabani told the supporters who gathered at Sulaimaniyah's center to welcome him home.

"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," he told a cheering crowd.

In his brief address, delivered in Kurdish and Arabic, he thanked King Abdullah II, the Jordanian monarch, for what he said was the excellent care he received in Amman.

"You will have to excuse me for not speaking longer to you," said the portly Talabani, who looked as though he had lost weight.

News of Talabani's arrival brought thousands of people to the streets of this city, with some singing and dancing. Motorists plastered their cars with portraits of Talabani, honked horns and played loud music.

Many waved the flag of Iraq's Kurdish region green, red and white tricolor with a yellow sun in the middle. Others carried pictures of the former guerrilla leader.

"Your return means new life to Kurdistan and a federal Iraq," said a banner hoisted outside the headquarters of Talabani's political party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, where the crowd gathered.

Talabani, a Sunni Kurd, collapsed on Feb. 25 in Sulaimaniyah, 260 kilometers (160 miles) northeast of Baghdad. He was unconscious as he was rushed to a local hospital, but recovered enough to be flown that evening to Jordan, where he was admitted to King Hussein Medical Center in Amman.

Doctors said he suffered from exhaustion and dehydration caused by lung and sinus infections.

Early this month, Talabani said his illness had perhaps been useful because it ensured that he received a full medical checkup. In an interview with AP Television News on March 1, he said he would return home to work for "a new, free, democratic, federal and united Iraq."

"I came for a simple procedure but the brothers here carried out a complete checkup," he told Jordan's official Petra news agency. He is to return to work later this week, he said.

Jordanian authorities kept reporters away from Amman airport, but a Petra reporter said Talabani smiled and joked as he said goodbye to Jordanian Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit and other officials. He wore a black coat.

The Iraqi leader was accompanied on the journey home by his wife and Barham Saleh, a longtime associate now serving in the central Iraqi government as deputy prime minister. He visited the Jordanian monarch before heading to the airport.

Among those who gathered at Sulaimaniyah's center to welcome Talabani was Zainab Khalid.

"I was grieving and crying everyday that the president was in hospital, but today my happiness can't be described," said 53-year-old Khalid, who lost two sons fighting Saddam Hussein's army in the 1980s as members of the Kurdish Peshmerga militia.

A 21-year old student of English at the Sulaimaniyah College of Arts, Tarkot Karim, said Talabani had united Iraqis after Saddam's 2003 ouster, reports AP.

"God forbid that anything bad happens to him," said Karim, "it would have a negative impact on all the Iraqi people Arabs and Kurds."

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