Talabani’s No 2 testing Iraqi waters in Ankara

Talabani’s No 2 testing Iraqi waters in Ankara

ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
Talabani’s No 2 testing Iraqi waters in Ankara

Turkish PM Erdoğan (C) meets Rasul (L) with a strong candidate for the Iraqi presidency in a meeting also attended by Turkey’s intel chief Fidan. AA photo

A senior Iraqi Kurdish official considered to be the right hand of ailing Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has visited Ankara to test the waters over Iraq in the event the incumbent cannot return to office as the country grapples with an uncertain political future amid spiraling violence.

The visit by Kosrat Rasul, the deputy secretary-general of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), has gained importance as it came after another visit to Tehran, a close ally of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Rasul, the vice president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), with whom Turkey has rapidly been improving its ties, is considered one of the front-runners to replace Talabani.

Rasul held talks with top Turkish officials, including President Abdullah Gül, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. The visit came upon Rasul’s demand, according to Turkish sources. Rasul was pleased with the developments between the KRG and Turkey and expressed a wish to pursue closer cooperation with Turkey in all areas following a meeting with Davutoğlu. Rasul also said they were following the reforms and steps taken by Turkey in admiration.

The 79-year-old Talabani, a Kurd, has been under treatment in Germany since he suffered a stroke in December 2012. His illness came at a time of escalating sectarian tension between the al-Maliki government, the KRG and Sunni minorities. Tens of thousands of Sunni protesters have been on the streets for weeks, complaining of discrimination, and have called for al-Maliki’s resignation after the arrest of the finance minister’s bodyguards.

Al-Maliki, a Shiite, is also at loggerheads with the Kurdish administration over several issues. Relations have been fraught since the establishment of a new military command in late 2012 encompassing the territory of northern Iraq, as well as over various other long-running disputes, including disagreements over oil-revenue sharing. Tension has also increased as Turkey and the KRG recently boosted their relationship, particularly in military, economic and trade terms, raising eyebrows in Baghdad.

Tehran visit

In a related development, a PUK delegation consisting of Rasul, Barham Salih, the party’s deputy secretary-general and former KRG prime minister, and Khasraw Gul Muhammad, a member of the party, made a visit to Tehran recently. A PUK advisor on Iranian affairs said Tehran did not want KRG to worsen its relations with al-Maliki, Rudaw website reported.

On the basis of the Iranian and Turkish visits, it is believed that Rasul is testing the waters for a possible presidency, even though he is already the de facto president of Iraq. His knowledge about the Kurdish peshmarga forces also increases his chance of succeeding Talabani.

Under Iraq’s Constitution, the Parliament must elect a new president if the post becomes vacant, and Iraq’s power-sharing deal calls for the presidency to go to a Kurd, while the two vice presidential positions are shared by a Sunni Muslim and a Shiite Muslim.

Salih is also among the candidates to replace Talabani should the president be incapacitated. Another candidate is Qubad Talabani, the KRG’s representative in the United States.