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Is Iraq’s Ultimate Survivor the Indispensable President?

WASHINGTON, Apr 14 2010 (IPS) - While the question of who will become Iraq’s future prime minister is still uncertain, when it comes to the presidency, incumbent Jalal Talabani stands the best chance of retaining the office.

Although in last month’s parliamentary elections, Kurds did not do as well as they did five years ago, mainly due to strong Sunni participation, Talabani has been quick to sit down with all major blocs to garner support for his presidency.

Talabani’s rival, the current Sunni Arab Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi, doesn’t appear to have the same broad-based support among the country’s different factions. When Hashemi insisted that after five years of a Kurd occupying the presidency, it was time for an Arab to replace him, he sparked strong reactions even among his own allies in the secular al-Iraqiya coalition. Kurds were quick to condemn his remarks as “chauvinist”.

“Given the position of (Ayad) Allawi and the State of Law (SOL) coalition, both sides need the Kurds and so both sides are cognizant that there would be certain requirements,” Kathleen Ridolfo, an independent Iraq and Arab affairs analyst, told IPS.

The Al-Iraqiya bloc of Allawi, a former secular prime minister, came in first in last month’s parliamentary elections with 91 seats. His main rival, current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s SOL coalition, came a close second with 89 seats.

“In any talks joining either Maliki or Allawi, the issue of Talabani staying in the presidency will be a major Kurdish condition,” Ridolfo added.

For many, Talabani’s ascendance five years ago would have been unthinkable just a decade before. As the first Kurdish head of the Iraqi state, Talabani’s presidency for Kurds was the zenith of nearly a century of struggle for their rights. However, his serious health problems in recent years have cast doubt on whether he can successfully serve another four-year term.

Still, Talabani has survived the turbulent waters of Iraq’s politics in a way that perhaps no other politician has. At the age of 77, he seems as ambitious as the young, idealistic revolutionary he was nearly half a century ago. Even at a time when his party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), has greatly diminished in numbers, Mam (Uncle) Jalal – as Kurds call him – seems to have reinvented himself as a political necessity.

“There will be a problem if the presidency won’t go to Talabani for a second term,” Khalid al-Assadi, an elected member of parliament from PM Maliki’s SOL, told the Arab-language al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper in late March. “And we don’t see a fundamental impediment to that.”

If a Shia from SOL or the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) becomes prime minister, the Shias will most likely back Talabani as president since they need Kurdish support to form the government. And if the Sunni-dominated al- Iraqiya bloc gets to form the future government, the presidency will still likely go to Talabani because Allawi also needs Kurdish support.

However, if there is a national unity government where all the major blocs – al-Iraqiya, SOL, INA and the Kurds – participate, the fate of Talabani’s presidency will be uncertain. Given that al-Iraqiya and SOL are the two largest coalitions, they might divide the top posts of prime minister and president among themselves.

In any case, experts believe the three major posts of president, prime minister and parliamentary speaker will be most likely decided on as a package by political groups.

While at the national level, Talabani appears to be doing fine, in the domestic Kurdish scene he is probably at the lowest point of his popularity. After a number of PUK’s senior leaders split from the party and created the Gorran (Change) Movement, Talabani’s party lost a great deal of its power base in the northern Kurdistan region.

In an ironic twist of fate, despite years of effort by Talabani to escape the shadow of his rival Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) – led by Mullah Mustafa Barzani and currently his son Massoud Barzani – his political fortunes today depend almost entirely on Massoud Barzani’s support.

However, Talabani’s leadership qualities have commanded a certain degree of respect among Iraq’s various political forces and the wider region. With the fragmentation of the country’s politics during the recent sectarian Shia-Sunni conflict, Talabani was a major uniting force in Baghdad.

He is close to some key regional powers like Iran and Turkey and has generally good relations with the Arab states in the region. While quite close to Iran, he also enjoys good relations with the U.S.

Despite Kurds’ strong sense of identity and general uneasiness working within the Iraqi national system, Talabani is believed to have balanced his Kurdish and Iraqi allegiances successfully.

“He is a conciliatory person, easy to work with and was not really a Kurd as much as an Iraqi leader. If you look at the record, except for Article 140, Talabani has not profiled himself as a Kurdish leader,” said Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert at the International Crisis Group.

Article 140 is a provision in Iraq’s Constitution that mainly addresses Kurds’ territorial grievances. “So in terms of his record, he must be quite acceptable to the majority of the members of parliament,” Hiltermann said.

Talabani has had a long and often dramatic career as a politician. He joined Kurdish politics at an early age while studying law at Baghdad University. He quickly ascended the ladder and became a favourite of Kurdish leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani in 1960s. In 1966, he fell out of favour with Barzani and a decade later founded his PUK in Damascus, Syria.

Talabani’s rivalry with the Barzani family became a defining feature of his political life. His disagreements with Mullah Mustafa’s son, Massoud Barzani, grew so deep that in 1994 that the two sides engaged in a bloody civil war in Iraqi Kurdistan, leaving thousands dead.

Four years later, the two leaders signed a peace deal in Washington. After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Talabani went on to be the Kurds’ main representative in Baghdad and, following the parliamentary elections of January 2005, was unanimously elected by the parliament as Iraq’s president.

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