At this stage, the long-term prognosis for Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who suffered an apparent stroke earlier this week, is unclear. He has been my friend for 25 years and I am hoping that his innate exuberance will carry him through this latest crisis. After all, he defied even longer odds to become the first ever democratically elected head of state in the multi-millennia history of a place that is considered the cradle of civilization. It's as yet too soon to guess at a prognosis, but he clearly will be out of action for some time -- and he will be missed.
Talabani, who devoted his life to the Kurdistan national cause, has been described as a unifier -- and, indeed, he may be the only unifying figure among Iraq's top political leaders. There is a certain irony to this because Talabani remains a Kurdish nationalist. When he speaks of "his country", he means Kurdistan, not Iraq. As president, he has tirelessly advocated for Kurdistan's rights under the Iraqi constitution.
But, by dint of personality, Talabani has used the largely ceremonial office of president of the republic to calm conflicts among Iraq's Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. He is, in effect, the mediator-in-chief. Most recently, he won agreement from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the federal government to withdraw their armed forces from a disputed area around Kirkuk. In other cases, he mediated conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites, and even within the Shiite community.
The Talabani treatment is unique. He is warm toward almost everyone, and considering his job exists mostly for protocol reasons, he has been the most informal of presidents -- greeting visitors with kisses, joking, educating, and, at meals, personally serving his guests. (One of his favorite foods is turkey and a whole bird is often on his table. More than once, he has asked me "Shall we carve up turkey?" Pulling off the right leg, he joked, "have the southeast!") But his frivolity was rarely frivolous: Talabani's government and political associates respected him not so much for his office but for his confident decision making and life-long struggle against dictatorship.
This makes him irreplaceable. The conventional wisdom is that the Kurds will want to replace him as president -- if it comes to that -- with another Kurd. But, in fact, the Kurds wanted Talabani in the presidency because he was a dominant figure among Iraq's new political leaders and to rectify the practical problem of having two top positions for Kurdistan's two senior leaders. (Masoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, became president of the Kurdistan Region.) Now, the Kurds may not value holding the Iraqi presidency as much if the president isn't Talabani. The Kurds want Baghdad to recognize the KRG's constitutional rights on oil and to hold the constitutionally mandated referenda for Kirkuk and other disputed territories. They see Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as the main obstacle to these goals and also fear what they perceive to be his increasingly dictatorial tendencies. And so the Kurds might be flexible on the presidency if there is a broader deal to replace Maliki with a leader willing meet Kurdish demands. Talabani -- ever the peacemaker -- had helped block a motion of no confidence against Maliki earlier this year. The Kurdish block plus the supporters of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi have close to the number of votes needed to replace the prime minister.