The incapacitation of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, in hospital Tuesday after reports of suffering a stroke, comes at a crucial time for the country, which has witnessed a surge in violence in the runup to the one-year anniversary of the departure of the last American troops.
While presidential powers in Iraq are limited, Talabani made the post his own, and has appeared, to many, as a unifying symbol in a country wracked by sectarian violence and power games.
He has continued to play a unifying role in the ongoing standoff between Kurds and the central government, and, in previous years, between Shiites and Sunnis as well.
His calm reasoning, and over 40 years of experiences, gained him the respect of many Iraqis who valued his balanced contribution to the often chaotic world of national politics, and won him the confidence of parties from across the political spectrum.
Indeed, the vacuum which will follow his absence from political life, coming as it does, could prove to be the first critical test for the Iraqi government since the departure of the U.S. troops, exactly one year ago.
A series of attacks across the country killed 48 people Monday, the deadliest day since late November, and targeted both civilians and security forces. The regional situation also threatens to further incite sectarian tensions in Iraq.
Free from American pressure and advice, this is a chance for Iraq to direct politics as they see fit, and to prove that the process is independent. However, the selection of a new president must be made very carefully, for the wrong choice could only seek to further exacerbate tension in the country.
Replacing Talabani with someone as charismatic and experienced, with the same skills of mediation, and with as few blemishes on his nationalism, will be no easy task, especially for a government’s whose reputation has thus far been far from clean.
Accusations of corruption against senior members of government have been coming in thick and fast over the past couple of years, and if the experience of the former deputy prime minister, now living in exile after being charged in absentia, is anything to go by, these claims are more than likely grounded in reality.
With much of the opposition also in hiding due to security fears, the track record of the current government does not exactly bode well, and so Iraq’s current rulers have to exercise extreme caution and foresight when selecting a new president.
With muted external pressure, the leaders of Iraq now have an opportunity to fill this gap with a wise and prudent president.
To rush through this process would be an incredibly risky move for the country’s leaders. Talabani acted as a safety valve in country experiencing increasing pressure, and ensuring that his absence will not rock a country already beset by instability, with storms under way in neighboring countries, is vital.