Iraqi President Incapacitated, Sectarian Tension Rising

Jalal Talabani is admitted to hospital just as Iraq could use a moderating force.

As if Iraqi politics needed another wrench in its turbulent system, millions of Iraqis around the country awoke on Tuesday to sad news of their president, Jalal Talabani, being rushed to hospital after suffering a stroke.

The septuagenarian president, who became the first non-Arab head of state in Iraq’s history in 2005, has a reputation for poor health and physical ailments. Talabani has traveled overseas numerous times for treatment, sometimes missing months of work for diabetes, weight problems or heart trouble. Yet his physical weakness was nothing when matched against his influence as a political heavyweight.

Talabani, a Kurd who began his political life in the 1950s as a member of the Kurdish Democratic Party, rose to prominence in Iraqi politics after he formed his own Kurdish party. He was, and still is, supported by millions of Kurds inside and outside Iraq for his time as a leading opponent of Saddam Hussein whose army suffered tremendous losses to Kurdish guerrilla fighters during the 1970s and 1980s. But it was during Talabani’s tenure as Iraq’s president after the overthrow of Hussein when his influence expanded from the Kurdish territories to the capital of Baghdad.

Unlike his decades long rival and sometimes partner, Kurdistan president Masoud Barzani, Talabani was considered by Iraqis across the political spectrum as an approachable, friendly figure who was willing to discuss differences face to face. When Iraq was torn apart by sectarian violence and the country’s leaders were proving to be, at the very least, dysfunctional, President Talabani was the man who could operate above the fray and gain the respect of his colleagues. His presence in the capital and his intimate connection with Kurdish leaders in the north allowed him to bring together feuding politicians from all sides together, regardless of ethnic differences that would have otherwise ruined any chance of reconciliation.

Technically, Iraq’s presidency is nearly powerless as an institution. Its stature is largely ceremonial. Indeed, its most important powers — appointing the prime minister and introducing a vote of no confidence — can only be made after parliament votes on the issue. Yet due in good measure to his personal relationships with Iraqi politicians, his friendships across the region and his image as a mediator, Jalal Talabani was able to exert far more influence than his office allowed.

It took Talabani’s intervention this past spring, when opponents of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki threatened to call a confidence vote against him in parliament, to bring all of the factions together and avert another potential period of instability in Iraqi politics. An agreement was not formally signed but the process itself dialed down the heat enough to let cooler heads prevail.

With Talabani in hospital and tensions between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government boiling over once again over territories claimed by both sides, Iraq faces perhaps its biggest political obstacle since the American military withdrew a year ago. Numerous problems can easily exploded without the presence of a moderating force. Who will succeed Talabani, how long the Kurds will fight to keep the presidency under their control and whether the next president can continue to keep Iraq on a somewhat stable, functioning footing are no longer hypothetical scenarios. The strength of Iraq’s central government, and perhaps the strength of its existence as a nation, depends on them.