But thanks in good measure to Talabani's qualities as a conciliator, the Kurds will be in a strong position even after he leaves office. As war approached in 2003, Talabani developed a close working relationship with one-time rival Masoud Barzani and Talabani's talented son, Qubad, is now chief of staff to KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani. Today, Kurdistan's two main parties, Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Barzani's KDP, work in coalition with frequent joint leadership meetings, a far cry from 15 years ago when they fought a nasty intra-Kurdish civil war.
The KRG, with its own elected government and powerful military, the peshmerga, is in a strong position vis a vis Maliki and the federal government. Kurdistan's economy is booming and the KRG increasingly has close ties to the outside world, and especially to neighboring Turkey. (By contrast, Maliki's relationship with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyep Recip Erdogan is poisonous.) Baghdad has neither power nor influence in Erbil. Under the Iraqi constitution, Kurdistan's parliament can amend or cancel any federal law as applied to Kurdistan. In practice, however, the federal government produces few laws and Kurdistan mostly ignores them. The conflict between the KRG and Maliki is a stand off of equals. Neither can enforce its will on the other.
Thus, Talabani's absence may be felt most acutely by Iraqi communities less powerful than the Kurds. During Iraq's recent civil war, he and Barzani provided a Kurdish safe haven to Christians and other Iraqis escaping sectarian violence. Even before becoming president in 2005, Talabani reached out to Iraq's Sunni sheiks -- many of whom made the trek to see the Kurdish leader at his lakeside retreat in Dokan -- in an effort to keep them from feeling totally marginalized. And, in the summer of 2005 when Iraq's political elite and U.S. policymakers focused on the constitutional negotiations, Talabani kept raising concerns about Shiite death squads -- linked to the Ministry of Interior -- that were targeting Sunnis. Talabani's political spadework with the traditional Sunni leaders provided them a measure of confidence that was key to their cooperation -- through the Sons of Iraq militia -- in the fight against al Qaeda. Talabani is an unsung hero in a success that Americans usually attribute to Gen. David Petraeus and his surge.
That most of Talabani's mediations have failed misses the point. Iraq's national and religious communities have fundamentally different views of Iraq's future: The now-dominant Shiite religious parties want to define Iraq as a Shiite state, while the Sunni Arabs see Iraq as part of the greater (Sunni) Arab nation. Even as many Sunnis now accept the loss of privileges they held during Iraq's first 80 years, few agree that Iraq should be defined in a way that does not include them. The Kurds, of course, really want out.
While Talabani has not resolved Iraq's most contentious issues (in part because they are not resolvable), he has helped persuade each community that it has more to gain through politics than violence. Iraq's sectarian and national divisions have often paralyzed Iraq's federal government -- and Talabani's unique contribution was to understand that paralysis is better than having one group impose its will on the others. There are many potential successors to Talabani as president, but Iraq needs someone who can fill his shoes. And none of Talabani's plausible replacements can do that.