BAGHDAD – Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has suffered a stroke and was in intensive care at a Baghdad hospital Tuesday, injecting new uncertainty into the country’s political future a year after the U.S. military left.
Although his official powers are limited, Talabani, 79, is respected by many Iraqis as a rare unifying figure seen as able to rise above the ethnic and sectarian rifts that still divide the country. Known for his joking manner and walrus-like moustache, Talabani has been actively involved in trying to mediate an ongoing crisis between Iraq’s central government and the country’s ethnic Kurdish minority, from which he hails.
Iraqi state TV and several officials, including the prime minister’s spokesman and Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, confirmed to the Associated Press that Talabani had a stroke. The severity remains unclear.
Talabani’s spokesman, Nasser al-Ani, told reporters that the president is in stable condition, though he did not say what he was suffering from. Medical officials who appeared with him were just as circumspect. They did not take questions.
“The president’s health is being closely followed up by our medical team. The vital organs are working and we hope that there will be no deterioration,” said Dr. Ayad Abbas from the intensive care unit where Talabani is being treated. “We hope that we will see improvement in the coming hours.”
The presidential office initially said Tuesday that Talabani was hospitalized the previous evening after showing signs of fatigue. A later statement cited tests showing he is suffering from a condition caused by a hardening of his arteries. It did not identify the condition.
Some local media reports suggested that Talabani had died, but Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said that was not the case.
Rifle-toting soldiers assigned to the presidential guard were deployed around Medical City, Baghdad’s largest medical complex, where Talabani is being treated. A number of senior government officials and lawmakers were seen rushing to the hospital to check on his condition, though their bodyguards were mostly not being allowed inside.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was among those who stopped by to check on the president, according to his spokesman, Ali al-Moussawi.
Medical teams from Germany and Britain are expected to arrive and will decide whether the president’s condition is serious enough for him to be sent abroad for treatment, al-Mutlaq said.
Neighboring Turkey offered to send an ambulance jet to Baghdad that could transport Talabani for treatment in Turkey or another country, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters.
He suggested that the Iraqis had not yet responded to the offer. “It is up to them to decide,” he said, adding that the information he had received was that Talabani was “seriously indisposed.”
Word of Talabani’s illness trickled out exactly a year after the last U.S. troops rolled out of Iraq. Their departure on Dec. 18, 2011 ended a nearly nine-year war that left more than 100,000 Iraqis and nearly 4,500 Americans dead.
Talabani is overweight and has undergone a number of medical procedures in recent years.
He had heart surgery at the Mayo Clinic in 2008 and has returned to the Minnesota institution for treatment since, including this past March. Over the summer, he underwent knee-replacement surgery in Germany.
The Iraqi presidency is a largely ceremonial post, though it does retain some powers under Iraq’s constitution, such as the ability to block executions.
Talabani has frequently used his position to mediate disputes within the government and among Iraq’s sects and ethnic groups. He has recently been working to resolve a standoff between the central government and the Kurds, who have their own fighting force.
The two sides last month moved additional troops into disputed areas along the Kurds’ self-rule northern region, prompting fears that fighting could break out.
Talabani last week brokered a deal that calls on both sides to eventually withdraw troops from the contested areas, though there is no timetable for how soon the drawdown might take place.
Talabani met with al-Maliki before falling ill Monday. They agreed that al-Maliki would invite a delegation from the Kurdish regional government to Baghdad to continue the talks, according to the prime minister’s office.
Iraq at one point had three vice presidents at a time, though one resigned last year and the other, Sunni politician Tariq al-Hashemi, has fled the country after arrest warrants were issued against him.
In the event of the president’s death, Shiite Vice President Khudier al-Khuzaie would be expected to assume the president’s duties temporarily because he is the only vice president remaining in Iraq, said legal expert Tariq Harb.
Lawmakers would have up to one month to choose a permanent replacement. Iraq’s Kurds would likely insist that the presidency remain in their hands, though there is no guarantee of that outcome.
Also on Tuesday, a car bomb exploded in the Shiite shrine city of Karbala, killing four pilgrims from the Muslim sect and wounding 14 others, according to police and hospital officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the information.