Talabani is the founder and secretary general of one of the main Iraqi Kurdish political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). He was a prominent member of the Interim Iraq Governing Council, which was established following the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Talabani has been an advocate for Kurdish rights and democracy in Iraq for more than fifty years.
In 1953 he was allowed to enter law school but was obliged to go into hiding in 1956 to escape arrest for his activities as founder and Secretary General of the Kurdistan Student Union. Following the July 1958 overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy, Talabani returned to law school, at the same time pursuing a career as a journalist and editor of two publications, Khabat and Kurdistan. After graduating in 1959, Talabani performed national service in the Iraqi army where he served in artillery and armor units and served as a commander of a tank unit.
The Iraqi Kurdish separatist movement collapsed in March 1975 after Iran ended their support in exchange for a border agreement with Iraq. This agreement was the 1975 Algiers Agreement, where Iraq gave up claims to the Shatt al-Arab waterway and Khuzestan, which later became the basis for the Iran-Iraq war. Believing it was time to give a new direction to the Kurdish separatists and to the Kurdish society, Talabani, with a group of Kurdish intellectuals and activists, founded the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (Yekiaiti Nishtimani Kurdistan). In 1976, he began organizing armed campaign for Kurdish independence inside Iraq. During the 1980s, Talabani sided with Iran and led a Kurdish struggle from bases inside Iraq until the crackdown against Kurdish separatist from 1987 to 1988.
In 1991, he helped inspire a renewed effort for Kurdish independence. He negotiated a ceasefire with the Iraqi Ba'athist government that saved the lives of many Kurds and worked closely with the US, UK, Turkey, France and other countries to set up the safe haven in Iraqi Kurdistan. He established a close personal relationship with the then President of Turkey, Turgut Özal. At that time, he was said to have a Turkish diplomatic passport to travel freely around the world. Democratic elections were held in the safe haven in 1992 for a Kurdish parliament and the Kurdistan Regional Government was founded.
Talabani has pursued a negotiated settlement to the internecine problems plaguing the Kurdish movement, as well as the larger issue of Kurdish rights in the current regional context. He worked closely with other Kurdish politicians, the rest of the Iraqi opposition factions, and the governments of the UK and Turkey during the Ankara process of Kurdish reconciliation. In close coordination with Massoud Barzani, Talabani and the Iraqi Kurds played a key role as a partner of the US-Coalition in the invasion of Iraq.
Documents found during the 2008 Ergenekon investigations at Turkish General Veli Küçük's house showed that the 1993 deaths of journalist Uğur Mumcu and of General Eşref Bitlis were related to an illegal arms trade (concerning 100,00 guns) carried out by the stay behind Ergenekon ultra-nationalist network and Talabani .
In January 2008, the Committee for the Protection of Journalists condemned Talabani for launching a lawsuit against Iraqi Kurdistan's independent newspaper after it criticized abuse-of-power, corruption, and nepotism in the area of Iraqi Kurdistan in which his political party holds sway.
Talabani was elected President of Iraq on April 6, 2005 by the Iraqi National Assembly and sworn in the following day. On April 22, 2006, Talabani began his second term as President of Iraq, becoming the first President elected under the country's new Constitution. Currently, his office is part of the Presidency Council of Iraq.
On February 25, 2007, Talabani was taken by a United States C-130 Hercules aircraft to Jordan for an undisclosed medical condition. Early reports indicated that Talabani may have suffered a heart attack, but those reports were disputed by Talabani's son during an interview with CNN. Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih told Reuters in Baghdad: "He had a drop in blood pressure. Doctors said he needs further tests." A statement issued by Talabani's office said there was no cause for concern, but gave no details of his illness.
During a visit to the Cambridge Union Society UK, in May 2007, he described Tony Blair as a 'hero' for helping secure Iraq's freedom.
Talabani's office was announced on August 14 2008 that heart surgery had been successfully performed on Talabani at the Mayo Clinic in the US city of Rochester, Minnesota, in order to correct a problem with a heart valve. His office also announced that he was discharged from the clinic on August 14.