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.
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.