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Iraq president Talabani in hospital after 'health emergency'

Kurdish former rebel who has been a major player in Iraq's politics for decades and worked to bridge its sectarian divide in hospital after suffering a stroke.

Iraq's president Jalal Talabani has been admitted to hospital after suffering a stroke, the seriousness of which is unclear.
Iraq's president Jalal Talabani has been admitted to hospital after suffering a stroke, the seriousness of which is unclear.

BAGHDAD // President Jalal Talabani, a Kurdish former rebel who has been a major player in Iraq's politics for decades and worked to bridge its sectarian divide was in hospital yesterday after suffering a stroke, officials said.

"Due to fatigue and tiredness, (Talabani) had a health emergency and was transported... to the hospital in Baghdad" on Monday night, a statement posted on the president's official website said.

Iraqi state TV and several officials, including the prime minister's spokesman and Deputy prime minister Saleh Al Mutlaq, confirmed the nature of Mr Talabani's illness. The seriousness of the stroke is unclear.

Although his political powers are limited, Mr Talabani, 79, is respected by many Iraqis as a rare unifying figure able to rise above the ethnic and sectarian rifts that still divide the country. Known for his joking manner and walrus-like moustache, Mr Talabani has been actively involved in trying to mediate an ongoing crisis between Iraq's central government and the country's Kurdish minority, from which he hails.

Prime minister Nouri Al Maliki has visited the hospital to check on Mr Talabani's condition, said his spokesman, Ali Al Moussawi.

Rifle-toting soldiers assigned to the presidential guard were deployed around Medical City, Baghdad's largest medical complex, where the president is being treated.

Medical teams from Germany and Britain were expected to arrive at the hospital and will decide whether the president's condition is serious enough for him to be sent abroad for treatment, Mr Al Mutlaq said.

Word of Mr Talabani's illness trickled out exactly a year after the last US troops rolled out of Iraq. Their departure on December 18, 2011, ended a nearly nine-year war that left more than 100,000 Iraqis and nearly 4,500 Americans dead.

Mr Talabani is overweight but little else is known publicly about his health. Over the summer, he underwent knee-replacement surgery in Germany.

The Iraqi presidency is seen as a largely ceremonial post, though it does retain some powers under Iraq's constitution. The president must sign off on laws approved by parliament and has the power to block executions.

Since becoming president in 2005, he has won praise for attempting to bridge divisions between Sunni and Shiite, and Arab and Kurdish factions.

During the past year, he has repeatedly sought to convene a national conference aimed at bridging sharp political differences in the country, and has worked to reduce tensions among Iraqi leaders.

Mr Talabani has also sought to smooth strained relations with neighbouring Syria and Iran.

A married father of two, he has dominated Iraqi Kurdish political life for more than four decades, along with his long-time rival, Kurdistan regional president Massud Barzani, and his family.

In his native Sulaimaniyah province, Mr Talabani is known simply as Mam (Uncle) Jalal, although his once-ubiquitous political support has dropped off considerably as his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) has been accused of corruption and stagnation.

Born in 1933 in the village of Kalkan in the mountains, as a young man he was quickly seduced by the Kurdish struggle for a homeland to unite a people scattered across Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.

After studying law at Baghdad University and a stint in the army, Talabani joined the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Mullah Mustafa Barzani, father of Massud, and took to the hills in a first uprising against the Iraqi government in 1961.

But he famously fell out with Mr Barzani, who sued for peace with Baghdad -- the start of a long and costly internecine feud among Iraqi Kurds.

Mr Talabani joined a KDP splinter faction in 1964, and 11 years later established the PUK.

*With Agence-France Presse