Who would succeed Talabani?
December 18th, 2012
01:39 PM ET

Who would succeed Talabani?

By Michael Rubin, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School. The views expressed are his own.

Early this morning, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani suffered a stroke. While his spokesman is releasing few details other than to acknowledge Talabani is in stable condition, some around described the president as comatose. Should he not recover, his loss would strike a blow for Iraq.

Unlike his Kurdish rival Massoud Barzani who often strikes diplomats as cold and aloof, Talabani was an affable man with ready humor. A polyglot, he put Americans, Iraqis, and Kurds at ease, maintained relationships with almost everyone, and so became a natural choice for Iraq’s presidency after Iraq held its first free elections in 2005. He would negotiate one day with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Persian, the next day with American diplomats in fluent English, debate Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Arabic, and then instruct his own staff in Kurdish. Few trusted him – his commitments tended only to last until his next meeting, he is said to have leaked American intelligence like a sieve to Iran and vice versa, and he was responsible for a disproportionate amount of pre-war intelligence regarding Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons systems – but all talked to him and most liked him. In short, he was the perfect figurehead for Iraq.

While the U.S. media has largely ignored Iraq since the withdrawal last year of the last American troops, Talabani’s ill-health does not surprise Iraqis. The president’s health has long been shaky; Talabani has made a half dozen trips to Minnesota’s Mayo clinic in recent years for various ailments exacerbated by obesity and diabetes, compounded by years of excessive smoking and drinking. Talabani’s extended absences have become commonplace. Just this past summer, Talabani was absent from Iraq for almost two months after suffering complications from knee surgery.

Politicians in Baghdad and in Iraqi Kurdistan have long planned for Talabani’s demise: Should Talabani remain incapacitated or pass away, the first question Iraqis will ask is who else can fill his role. Iraqi vice presidents are largely ceremonial, and even if one assumes acting power, he will not continue in the position for long because Kurds will demand that they retain the presidency.

After Talabani’s tenure, Kurds see the presidency as their slot. This has certainly been the hope of Barham Salih, Iraqi Kurdistan’s former prime minister and a long-time member of Talabani’s political party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). When, in early 2007, Talabani flew to Amman for emergency medical care for a “toothache,” Kurdish sources say Salih met with Iranian intelligence at Penjwin, a border town, in order to make his case to succeed Talabani. While word of Salih’s actions put him in the doghouse with Talabani and Talabani’s wife Hero Khan, the Kurdish press has reported that in recent months, Salih has been at it again, lobbying both the White House and the leadership of Iran’s notorious Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. For this and personal reasons, Hero Khan, a kingmaker within the PUK, may do all she can to prevent Salih’s rise.

Other Kurds will push for Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, the uncle of Iraqi Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, a move that will simply unleash a new round of fighting over who should take the helm at the foreign ministry. Whether for president or foreign minister, other communities will push for their own favorites. In the deal-making that followed Iraq’s 2009 elections, Iraq’s interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi won a plurality but was unable to cobble together a coalition and form a government. He has since used his substantial capital to lobby neighboring Arab states to keep his political prospects alive. The White House briefly hoped Talabani might step down to allow Allawi the presidency as a consolation prize, a move the Kurds flatly rejected, but one which will surely re-emerge should the presidency again open.

Regardless of who succeeds Talabani, diplomats and Iraqi politicians must soon confront the elephant in Iraqi politics: The arrangement by which they distribute positions on the basis of ethnicity and religious sect. At issue is whether Iraq will follow Lebanon’s confessional system. In that tiny yet diverse Arab state, the president is a Maronite Christian, the speaker of parliament a Shiite Muslim, and the prime minister a Sunni Muslim. Such a compromise worked well in Lebanon until demography began to shift; the result was a 17-year civil war. Alas, Iraqi politicians may not be farsighted enough to prioritize long term stability over short-term deal-making, and risk setting Iraq down Lebanon’s trajectory. The only thing that unites Sunnis, Kurds, and even Shiites, is the belief that they have been shortchanged in Iraq’s power lottery.

Compounding the succession question will be Iraq’s current political impasse. Barzani encouraged Talabani to take the presidency less for Kurdish pride and more to get his longtime opponent away from Iraqi Kurdistan. Talabani, however, brought the rivalry to Baghdad. While Barzani sought a vote of no confidence to bring down the Maliki government, Talabani maneuvered to keep the vote off the floor of the parliament. Any nomination will become hostage to this and other unresolved Baghdad disputes. Maliki’s future may not be the only one at stake. Many Iraqis would like to send Tariq Aziz, Iraq’s imprisoned Saddam-era foreign minister, to the gallows. While former members of Talabani’s inner circle acknowledge that Talabani ordered his party loyalists to kill political opponents over the years, Talabani has refused to sign Aziz’s death warrant on the basis that Talabani opposes capital punishment. A new president might not be so inclined; certainly parties like Ayad Allawi’s which represent former Baathists will not be inclined to accept a nominee who will carry out Aziz’s sentence.

Talabani’s death might also upset Kurdish stability. The PUK is beset by infighting among Hero Khan, Barham Salih, and former PUK Prime Minister Kosrat Rasul. In recent years, Talabani has also sought to promote his younger son Qubad within the party. Both Barham and Qubad are liked in Washington and London but many Kurds question their legitimacy because neither fought against Iraqi forces as peshmerga, guerilla fighters. Kosrat was a popular peshmerga commander, but his health is poor. Talabani’s wife’s reputation for ruthlessness – and her J. Edgar Hoover-esque control of files regarding her peers quirks and faults – may not be enough for her to consolidate the remnants of her party, or hand the reins to Qubad.

The question then becomes who fills the gap. Both Gorran – a popular reformist party founded by Noshirwan Mustafa, Talabani’s former deputy – and Barzani’s traditional Kurdistan Democratic Party will try. The problem is that for 20 years, Barzani and Talabani resolved their divisions and divided power in backroom deals rather than at the ballot box. (Iraqi Kurdistan is still yet to hold its scheduled 2009 local elections). If Mustafa and Barzani cannot strike a deal, Kurdistan’s stability might be upended: While Mustafa would no doubt relish free and fair elections, Barzani is more likely to fight than trust his future to the electorate. Iraqi Kurdistan may seem stable today, but its devastating civil war is only 15 years behind it, something Kurds remember only too well. The family members of those who Barzani and Talabani’s security forces consigned to mass graves continue to demonstrate for justice. A new round of fighting might not replicate past battles, but it could take the form of assassination waves and bombings.

Exacerbating the political reshuffle on both the Kurdish and larger Iraqi stage will be the disposition of Talabani’s extensive business interests. When Qubad Talabani represented the Kurdistan Regional Government in Washington, he worked as much as his father’s business agent than as a representative of Iraqi Kurds. Much business in Iraq is personal, and absent the patronage of a figure such as Talabani, many businesses – American firms included – may find their contracts worth considerably less than the paper on which they are written.

Let us hope that Talabani recovers. But should he not, expect the next year in Iraqi and Kurdish politics to be a true roller coaster ride.

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Topics: Iraq

soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. English European

    The other option that was briefly discussed after the last elections was a Sunni Arab – possibly someone like Najafi?

    December 18, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Reply
  2. 100 % ETHIO

    Soon or latter, expect the unknown known.

    Who will succeed the Soviet era-American good friend?
    Well, some of our old-good friends, turned and becomes our true-enemies. No made mistakes about it!

    If we introgate them,
    If we take them responsible for what they did against America,
    If we really become good CHRISTIANS, wow, JEWISH WILL JOIN TALIBAN AND SUCCEED WHOMEVER.
    REMEMBER, WHOMEVER TELL US ABOUT OTHERS, WILL TELL OTHERS ABOUT US.

    SIMPLE Maths. Just eliminated the above words and you will get answer, WHOMEVER WILL. But, whomever = Jewish who speaks the

    December 18, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Reply
    • 100 % ETHIO

      Talabani remained incapacitated.

      December 21, 2012 at 5:55 pm | Reply
  3. Hahahahahahahaha

    Let me guess. Another Towel Head maybe? Hahahahahahahaha

    December 18, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    Talabani is often described as the safety valve of Iraqi politics. He was given credit for brokering the Erbil agreement between Maliki and his opponents that laid down the parameters of power sharing between the major political parties. Yet a national dialogue he called for in order to resolve the differences between squabbling factions and take Iraq out of its political quagmire never took place, chiefly because of his ailing health.

    December 18, 2012 at 6:05 pm | Reply
  5. Quigley

    II don't know who'll succeed Jalal Talibani, but Moqtada al-Sadr should do it. At least he won't be a puppet for the right-wing thugs in Washington. The bottom line here is that Iraq needs to be divided into three different states, first by giving the north to the Kurds, the south to the Shiites and the west to the Sunnis, That way, peace may finally come to Iraq!

    December 18, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Reply
    • English European

      @Quigley. Iraq is not ours to "give" to anyone.

      December 20, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Reply
  6. wjmccartan

    I hear Pinnochio is available, look no strings.

    December 18, 2012 at 8:31 pm | Reply
  7. shaho kermashani

    Yet another Kurd-bashing piece from the long-time professional Kurd-hater Mikey Rubin. Get over it mike, Kurds will not fight each other again, no matter how much your pay masters in Ankara and Tehran wish/pay for it.

    A visit to a psychiatrist might actually help you with your acute Kurd-hating syndrome.

    December 19, 2012 at 5:24 am | Reply
    • wjmccartan

      Unfortunately shaho, there are a lot of Tea Partying, Kurd hating idiots in this country. Nobody wants to acknowledge the simple fact that the Kurds both want and deserve their independence from both Iraq and Turkey!

      December 19, 2012 at 1:05 pm | Reply
  8. K.I.M

    Listen to Kurdish views:

    President Talabni is a symbol of peace and pluralistic co-existence. He succeeded to unify all Iraqis political parties. He was one of the key architect of Kurdistan Regional Government. He is irreplaceable and did his part. He was a revolutionary, legendary leader. It is time for him to take break and take care of his health. Qubad Talabani, his son and the former KRG representative to the US, is the best most qualified candidate to succeed him. Qubad is an extremely admired and well-educated. We personally recommend him, not his party.

    Kurdistan Independence Movement ( K.I.M)

    December 19, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Reply
  9. Ishtar enana

    I think the Kurds and USA will nominate Najm Eldine Kareem, governor of Kirkuk

    December 20, 2012 at 7:22 am | Reply
    • Kurdistan Independence Movement ( K.I.M)

      Najmadeen Karim is a good choice but he does not enjoy public support as much as Qubad Talabani. Qubad is president's son and very shrewd.

      Kurdistan Independence Movement ( K.I.M)
      Facebook: kim ndependenceforkurds

      December 21, 2012 at 6:16 pm | Reply
  10. Rick McDaniel

    Iraq will eventually become what it was before. A totalitarian dictatorship, under a totalitarian religion.

    December 20, 2012 at 10:12 am | Reply
  11. RLTJ's

    The ugly reality is, Ive been in here a long time and I have not even read yet real issues why there is rebellion in Syria. All i keep seeing are words like Shiite, Alawites, Sunnis, Kurds, Israel, Arabs, Palestinians, Christians, Muslims.

    So the conflicts are simply racial and religious.

    December 20, 2012 at 10:36 pm | Reply
  12. Koshish

    Not impressed about this article. I don’t agree with his analysis at all. This guy calling himself an expert on Kurdish affair, but all he do is insult Kurds and damage the reputation of the Kurds. This “Michael Rubin” guy holds a deep animosity toward Barzani family. He has to write something about them even if the article is not about them. Kurdish people in Iraq elected Barzani in 2009. Get over it. You are not a Kurd and he is not your president.

    December 24, 2012 at 7:14 pm | Reply
  13. Hamma Mirwaisi

    Is Talabani's Death will be Welcome News for Kurds in Year 2013?

    Shahanshah (King of Kings) of Median Empire Ahasuerus (Astyages) husband of Queen Vashti of Medes with Bears (Huart which evolved to Kuart and Kurd)

    Personally I believe one less evil is always good news for oppressed Kurds. Kurdish people have been suffering more from Kurdish tribal leaders and Kurdish religious Sheiks than the occupiers.
    Since the collapse of Median Empire in conspiracies’ to our time now, the Kurdish people have been suffering in the hand of Kurdish leaders and occupiers alike. The Kurds has been living in Kurdistan without laws. Kurdish leaders used laws of jungle to rule Kurdistan, they are stealing, killing, raping without punishment.

    In south Kurdistan both ruling family members (Barzani and Talabani) are above the laws. They are using laws of jungle to rule the population.
    Israel is trying to colonize Kurdistan for its natural resources. They are recruiting Barzani and Talabani families to accomplish their dirty plan. Israel is protecting them, especially Barzani family against Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Kurdish population, in return Barzani family and Talabani family sharing oil wealth with Israel.

    Majority of Kurdish people know that now. There are Kurds whom are selling their own mother to make money; most of them are supporter of Barzani and Talabani now. But those Kurds who love Kurdistan and want to live in peace under rule of laws are fighting such imposed rule on them.
    KCK are gaining momentum in Turkey, Iran and Syria to unit Kurds people in process called “Return of the Medes”. Few Jewish prophets wrote 2800 years ago that the Medes (Kurds) will get united under extreme pressure some day and they will burn enemies of Kurds in that process.

    Indeed the “return of the Medes” is in process based on wishes of God. No one can stop the wishes of God.

    Talabani was against Kurdish people interest and so is Barzani. Israel and Turkey are helping them. But fortunately Talabani is gone and Barzani is in his way to go too.

    God is helping Kurdish people. Every time Turkey and Israel planning elimination of Kurds, something will come up derailing their plans. And the God is allowing the process of united Kurds to go ahead.
    The twin evils of South Kurdistan (Barzani and Talabani) are losing ground to Kurdish people liberation movement. The death of Talabani is good news for Kurdish people and death of Barzani will be welcome news for Kurds too.

    The school of Barzani and Talabani (KDP and PUK) produced thousand of evil Kurds in Kurdistan. All of them known as thieves and criminals among the Kurds, with the death of Barzani and Talabani they are going to be arrested and they will be punished by laws for stealing and murdering Kurds.

    Long live united Kurdish people
    Death to traitors among Kurdish people

    December 26, 2012 at 3:29 am | Reply
  14. Hamma Mirwaisi

    Talabani's departure from Iraqi politics source of concern for Ankara

    19 December 2012 / GÖZDE NUR DONAT, ANKARA,

    The departure of President Jalal Talabani from Iraqi politics would deepen a political crisis between the central Iraqi government and the autonomous Kurdish administration, something that would be a source of concern for Ankara.
    The 79-year-old Talabani, who has mediated between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds and in the growing dispute over oil between Baghdad and the Kurdish government, was admitted to hospital on Monday night after suffering a stroke on Monday. Officials said on Wednesday that he was responding to treatment. “He is showing clear signs of improvement,” Najmaldin Karim, the governor of Iraq's Kirkuk city who is also a doctor, told Reuters.

    Please read the rest of article in th link below (Tosays Zaman Turkey's publication)
    Indeed he was good servant of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria aganist interest of Kurdish people

    http://www.todayszaman.com/news-301625-talabanis-departure-from-iraqi-politics-source-of-concern-for-ankara.html

    December 26, 2012 at 3:46 am | Reply
  15. Curvissa Discount Code

    You have got a very interesting style of writing!
    If you want to do guests posts for me personally on my wordpress bog, please get in touch.
    Cheers

    February 22, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Reply

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