February 26, 2007

What happens in Iraq if Talabani can't serve?

This article appeared on MSNBC Hardball Hardblogger

On Sunday, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani was flown by U.S. military aircraft from his residence in As-Sulaymaniyah to the King Hussein Medical City in Amman, Jordan, one of the best hospitals in the region. The reason for the medical evacuation is reportedly "exhaustion and a mild inflammation of the lungs."

Jalal Talabani and Rick Francona
Irbil, Iraq - 1996

I worked closely with “Mam Jalal,” as he is known to his friends, in northern Iraq while assigned to the Central Intelligence Agency in the mid-1990’s. Talabani, 73, is a Kurd with a long history of guerrilla operations against the Baath Party. In addition to serving as President of Iraq, he is the Secretary General of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). He has emerged as one of the few leaders in Iraq with the stature and political savvy to keep the nation from fracturing into three ethnic enclaves. Ironic – considering that for decades he was one of the key proponents of an independent Kurdistan.

Although the President of Iraq is the head of state, not the head of government, Jalal Talabani is well respected among both the Sunni and Shia communities – few Iraqi politicians can claim that distinction - making him a valuable member of the governance team in Baghdad. What happens if Talabani cannot return to his duties?Talabani was acceptable as a compromise candidate for president – both the Sunni and Shia Arabs were willing to have a Kurdish president, and it was an inclusive gesture to the non-Arab Kurds.

Should Talabani not be able to continue in office, succession may become a constitutional issue. The current Iraqi constitution states that “Presidential succession goes first to the deputy of the President of the Republic….” Currently, there are two deputies (vice presidents) as an interim measure until the second parliamentary elections. Which of the two vice presidents, one Sunni Arab and one Shia Arab, would take over? This will likely have to be decided in the Council of Representatives.

Given the existing animosity between the two sects and the raging sectarian violence, it seems logical that another Kurd would be elected as president. Two names come to mind: Barham Salih and Hoshyar Zebari. Both are filling key positions in the government – Salih is a deputy prime minister and Hoshyar Zebari is the foreign minister. I have worked with both – they are well-regarded across party and ethnic lines and either would make an excellent president.

Whether Talabani resumes his duties or is replaced by Barham or Hoshyar, they will have their work cut out for them – containing the savagery in Baghdad.