Iraqi President Jalal Talabani underwent a successful heart surgery Aug. 6 in the United States, but still needs a knee operation, according to an unnamed senior official from his party. The official added that Talabani will be leaving the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota on Aug. 16 for Washington, where he will stay until he recovers. STRATFOR does not usually concern itself too much with the fates of particular national leaders. Our view is that the behavior of states is driven much more by core national interests than by particular personalities, and that national interests are in turn driven by geography — which does not change nearly as often as the nameplate on the presidential office door. Moments do occur, however, when a particular leader has a greater than normal significance to the geopolitical system. Right now, Talabani may be such a leader. In addition to being Iraq's president, Talabani is the chief of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which controls the southeastern part of Iraq's Kurdish region. Talabani's chief political rival is Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which controls the northwestern part of Iraqi Kurdistan. Though both the PUK and KDP joined together in a political alliance in 2003 just prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the past five years of Kurdish unity is very much a historical anomaly. The Kurds inhabit the mountainous territory where Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran all come together. Surrounded by powers that each have a vested interested in containing Kurdish aspirations for independence, the Kurds rely on the security of their mountain refuge for survival. But while the jagged territory has provided the Kurds with some degree of protection, the isolated conclaves it has created have also contributed to deep-seated tribal rivalries that have manifested in frequent, full-scale civil wars. Even in the face of a common enemy, whether it be Turkey or Saddam Hussein, this intra-Kurdish animosity has frequently taken precedence. This has allowed outside powers plenty of opportunity to exploit these rifts and stir up trouble for their regional opponents.
Talabani, 74 years old and overweight, is not in good health. Should he die, there is a good chance that a power struggle will break out between the PUK and KDP, threatening the fragile unity that the two parties have enjoyed in recent years. Talabani's son, Qubad, who now serves as the Kurdistan Regional Government's diplomatic representative to the United States, is likely to succeed him as PUK leader — but there is no guarantee that he will be able to contain a revived intra-Kurdish rivalry. Iraqi Kurdistan is now at a critical juncture. General elections are supposed to be held by the end of 2008 (though there is a good chance they could be delayed). The Kurds are facing a situation in which they will soon see their political clout in parliament significantly undermined when Iraq's Sunnis come back into the government in full force. Disputes over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which the Kurds have a strategic need to keep under their control, are threatening to destabilize northern Iraq, with Kurdish paramilitary peshmerga troops already attempting to encircle the city
. And with the United States under pressure to free up its forces from Iraq
, the Kurds cannot entirely trust that they will continue to have the same security guarantees they have enjoyed since 2003. In this situation, Talabani's health has geopolitical ramifications. With one of Iraq's chief Kurdish leaders in critical condition, the probability of Iraq's most stable region going up in flames has gone up a notch — and this at a time when the United States is doing its best to lock things down in Iraq through convoluted negotiations with Iran. With the U.S. military stretched thin in Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington has no spare capacity to deal decisively with crises elsewhere in the world, which creates a window of opportunity for secondary powers to expand and consolidate their influence in ways that might not be in accord with U.S. interests. Russia's unhindered invasion of Georgia, a U.S. ally, has amply demonstrated that Moscow, at least, is willing to take advantage of the opportunity. If the United States can extricate itself from Iraq, or at least manage Iraq to the point that only a token force needs to be left behind, the window might begin to close. If Iraqi Kurdistan falls into chaos, however, the window will remain open for the foreseeable future.