Iraq after Talabani?

Iraq after Talabani?

It’s not just his sympathizers that call him “Mam Jalal” (Uncle Jalal in Kurdish), but almost everyone else that knows him, too; now, however, 79-year-old “Mam Jalal” – Jalal Talabani, the president of Iraq – is set to continue his medical treatment in Germany, where he previously underwent medical operations and treatment, following a brain stroke that reportedly occurred three days ago.

He fought nearly all his life against Baghdad before becoming the incumbent in the Iraqi capital after his predecessor, Saddam Hussein, was toppled by the U.S. invasion in 2003. As the only local collaborators in the invasion, Iraqi Kurds became a key factor in Iraqi policies, especially in the balance of power between the majority Shiite Arabs and minority Sunni Arabs. And when Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader Masoud Barzani chose to remain as leader of the Kurds in Iraq, Kurdistan Patriotic Union (PUK) leader Talabani, who knew the corridor games of international politics better, became the compromise solution for the Iraqi presidency in 2005.

Many people in the Middle East, from his opponents in Iraq to the leaders of the neighboring countries and the CEOs of overseas energy giants, are currently praying for his recovery. If he goes now, the already-fragile situation in Iraq might deteriorate further and the country could be dragged into a sectarian and ethnic civil war.

Only a few days before the stroke, Talabani was mediating between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad and Barzani, now the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) based in Arbil, further north near the Iranian and Turkish borders, as the armies loyal to them started to appear around the disputed city of Kirkuk.

Foreign policy analysts in Ankara are worried of an “increased sensitivity in the political balances” in Iraq if Talabani passes away or leaves, “God forbid.”

Not only in Ankara and Tehran, but in many other capitals as well, decision-makers are trying to analyze the chances of the new president sustaining the status quo in the event that Talabani leaves office. If another Kurdish-origin Iraqi politician becomes the next president in order to keep the country together, Barham Salih, former prime minister of the KRG and a deputy secretary-general of the PUK, would be a strong candidate. Two other Kurdish candidates are Nechirvan Barzani, the current prime minister of the KRG, and Hoshyar Zabari, the foreign minister of Iraq, who are both KDP members.
There could be a fight, however, for there to be a non-Kurdish successor. The actors of that fight might be Ammar al-Hakim and Muqtada al-Sadr on the Shiite front (no need to mention al-Maliki himself), Ghazi al-Yawer on the Sunni front and Iyad Allawi as the leading secular figure in today’s Iraqi politics.
But under a non-Kurdish president, at least without dear concessions to Kurds (particularly over oil and gas rights), Iraq could move a step further toward inner strife which might end up with the disintegration of Iraq; Kurds in the north (who might move closer to Turkey), Shiites (who might show solidarity with neighboring Iran) and Sunnis in the middle – nobody is able to say exactly what they would do with the growing influence of Salafi/Wahhabi radicals among them. And one has to add the worsening situation in its western neighbor, Syria, to the mix.

The stroke that hit Talabani hard might have hit the petroleum-centered sectarian and ethnic-based politics of the region even harder.