Iraqi president Jalal Talabani has suffered a stroke and is intensive care at a Baghdad hospital, injecting fresh uncertainty into the country’s political future.
Although his official powers are limited, Mr Talabani, 79, is respected by many Iraqis as a rare unifying figure – and is seen as being 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 ethnic Kurdish minority, from which he comes.
“The president’s vital organs are working and we hope that there will be no deterioration,” said Dr Ayad Abbas from the intensive care unit where Mr Talabani is being treated. “We hope that we will see improvement in the coming hours.”
The presidential office initially said that Mr Talabani was hospitalised 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.
Rifle-toting soldiers assigned to the presidential guard were deployed around Medical City, Baghdad’s largest medical complex, where Mr Talabani is being treated. A number of senior government officials and MPs were seen rushing to the hospital, including prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Medical teams from Germany and Britain are expected to arrive today and will decide whether the president’s condition is serious enough for him to be sent abroad for treatment.
Neighbouring Turkey offered to send an ambulance jet to Baghdad to transport Mr Talabani to 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 Mr Talabani was “seriously indisposed”.
Mr Talabani is overweight and has undergone a number of medical procedures in recent years.
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.
Mr 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 potentially explosive stand-off 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-ruled northern region, prompting fears that fighting could break out.
Mr 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 pull-back might take place.