Iraqi President Talabani's Stroke, Possible Death, Could Shift Balance Of Power

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Jalal Talabani
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani (C) greets Gen. Lloyd Austin (L), commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, at the door of the presidential palace in Baghdad April 7, 2011

The office of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani issued a statement on Tuesday confirming that the 79-year-old leader had suffered a stroke and is in stable condition after being rushed to a Baghdad hospital that morning. He slipped into a coma, although it is not yet known if he is dead.

Chinese news agency Xinhua reported at 5:30 p.m. local time Tuesday that Talabani had died, but  Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari denied this to Al-Arabiya and the AP, saying that the president's condition was stable. 

A statement on the president's website said, "Tests show that his bodily functions are normal and his excellency's condition is stable," Al-Jazeera translated. "He is under intensive medical supervision." The statement originally said he had been admitted for "fatigue and tiredness."

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's spokesman told the press that Maliki had visited Talabani in the hospital.

Talabani has reportedly suffered from "various health problems" over the years, after surviving exile and several wars. Elected in 2005, he is Iraq's first Kurdish president, helping to maintain the high-wire power balancing act that characterizes the Iraqi government; Talabani's two vice presidents are a Sunni and a Shiite Muslim. 

Although he has little constitutional power as president, Talabani is a respected man in Iraq, and just finished negotiating a deal along the Arab-Kurdish border in northern Iraq. His stroke could be a grave development for Iraq, former Ambassador to Iraq and visiting fellow at the Washington Institute James Jeffrey said.

"This is an extraordinarily bad development," Jeffrey said. "Talabani had just finished negotiating possible compromise with Prime Minister Al-Maliki on disputed areas on Arab-Kurd border. He's also been active on the oil question . His incapacitation will have major negative impacts on the developments in that country.

"I wouldn't want to speculate on another president," Jeffrey continued. "My hopes are that President Talabani recovers. As long as he is out of the action, regardless of what other developments we encounter, this is an extremely bad development."

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