Talabani’s absence threatens balance in Iraq

By Mashreq Abbas – Al-Hayat (Pan Arab) – 22.12.2012 – The crisis erupted between the Kurdistan region and the Iraqi central government when President Jalal Talabani spent months recovering in a German hospital. This also came after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki decided — in July — to form the Tigris Operations Command to oversee the security issue in the province of Kirkuk. The Kurds became irritated and mobilized their troops in preparation for a military confrontation.

People close to Talabani (79 years old) — who left Baghdad yesterday to receive treatment for a stroke — emphasize that the fallout of the crisis will cause a great deal of speculation about the future of political agreements, which are prone to collapse. Various Iraqi parties have tried to take a reassuring tone over the past two days and emphasized their commitment to the truce agreement that Talabani successfully concluded with Maliki and Massoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s Kurdish region. However, the history of political conflicts in Iraq does not indicate that commitments to such an agreement are possible in the absence of its sponsor.

The Iraqi president, who repeatedly acknowledged that he has not used his constitutional prerogatives to preside over the executive authority — in accordance with the requirements of the Iraqi national accord — is the only politician in the dispute capable of protecting the various political agreements. The majority of these agreements are the fruit of his efforts, and came about because of his stature in political circles.

Unlike what is common in Iraq, the news of Talabani’s health crisis and the rumors of his death led to an unprecedented popular show of support, where rival parties described him as a firefighter in a country with a lot of fires.

The state of political and popular sadness and expectancy in recent days is largely linked to the Iraqi crisis, where concerns over a breakout of differences have doubled, particularly in Kirkuk, given that Kurdish and central government forces are mobilized on the region’s borders as a result of a mistake or miscalculation on the part of both parties. Talabani’s health crisis has helped to prevent the escalation of the situation, after a serious security incident where Peshmerga forces targeted a government reconnaissance aircraft. Iraqi forces noted that they will firmly deal with any other attack. However, nobody guarantees that such an incident will not be repeated in the future. Moreover, there will be no time to identify which party was behind it.

Talk and statements expressing solidarity and compassion with Talabani have been circulated in political circles. People have been searching for a successor even before medical reports on his health condition have been issued. Multiple scenarios were quickly suggested, each one of them in line with the interests of a specific party. Barham Salih, Fouad Massoum and Hoshiar Zebari were mentioned in the media as potential Kurdish successors to Talabani. However, the list included new names, some of which are Sunni, in reference to a potential use of Talabani’s absence to change the power equation in Iraq. Regardless of these scenarios, the political crisis is imposing different patterns of expectations in the absence of Talabani. The president strongly criticized the formation of the Tigris Operations Command and condemned Maliki for failing to keep his promise of dismantling these forces. Then, he addressed a strongly-worded letter to the land forces commander to remind him that he is the “head of state,” in reference to the depth of the crisis that is affecting him personally.

The supportive environment that Talabani created in Baghdad will not allow a debate over the political crisis to take place for days, and it may turn into an adequate climate for compromises, deals, adoption of laws, imposition of some facts and the blurring of others.