President Talabani suffers stroke and brings new threat to fraught Iraq

President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki
President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki
Image: AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed
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stroke suffered by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani this morning could reignite tensions between Baghdad and an increasingly self-confident Kurdistan—a conflict that the president has been instrumental in mediating. The 79-year-old Talabani, who is himself a Kurd, is being treated in Baghdad, though doctors are in the process of determining whether to fly the ailing president to a hospital abroad, said a spokesman.

Over the last year, Kurdistan—the separatist northern region bordering Turkey—has aggravated Baghdad by carving out new autonomy. Global oil companies, upset with meager contracts in Iraq proper, have pulled up stakes and flocked to Kurdistan. Turkey, meanwhile, has signaled a willingness to defy Baghdad and allow the construction of independent oil and gas pipelines through its territory.

Against that backdrop, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has deployed the military in the north, and said late last month that he would not sign a conciliatory agreement negotiated between Baghdad and the Kurds.

In recent days, Talabani issued new warnings of possible armed conflict between the two sides, calling directly for Maliki to be replaced if he does not pull back his troops and sign the agreement.

Under Iraq’s power-sharing arrangement, a Kurdish leader is entitled to be either president, prime minister or speaker of parliament, provided that he wins approval by two-thirds of the parliament. However, if Talabani is incapacitated and unable to continue serving, it is unclear that the Kurds have a candidate capable of winning sufficient political support.