Iraq President Talabani’s Stroke May Fuel Ethnic Tensions

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, the country’s first Kurdish head of state who has sought to balance the nation’s rival factions, is improving after suffering a stroke two days ago, state-sponsored Iraqiya TV reported.

Talabani’s health improvement is “noticeable” and he is in a “stable condition,” according to Iraqiya. Doctors from Germany and Iran have arrived and are checking on Talabani, and a third medical team from the U.K. is due to arrive today, Iraqiya reported.

The 79-year-old president was admitted to a Baghdad hospital on Dec. 17 after suffering a stroke. Talabani’s office said yesterday that he fell ill “due to exhaustion and fatigue.”

Talabani has been a stabilizing force in Iraq, although his position is largely ceremonial. He was chosen as president by parliament in 2005 after Iraq’s first democratic election in 50 years, which followed the U.S.-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein. He has worked to ease the conflict between the Shiite Muslim majority and the Sunni community that escalated into violence after the 2003 war, and the tensions between Iraq’s Arabs and Kurds over control of the nation’s oil wealth.

‘Mediating Influence’

“Talabani was a mediating influence because he managed to keep a foot in both camps,” said Marina Ottaway, a senior associate in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington policy group. “There’s no doubt he’s a Kurdish nationalist, but he also was Iraq’s president and he managed to straddle the line,” Ottaway said in a telephone interview yesterday.

He began his political career in the 1950s and founded the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in 1975. His Peshmerga militia battled Hussein’s army in the 1970s and 1980s, and following the 1991 Gulf War he led a Kurdish uprising against the Iraqi government.

Iraq holds the world’s fifth-biggest crude reserves, according to BP Plc (BP/) statistics that include Canada’s oil sands.