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Prolonged absence of ailing president, a father figure, cuts hole in Iraqi politics

President Jalal Talabani's unexpected exit from Iraqi politics couldn't have come at a worse time for his nation, threatened by mounting antagonism among Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites.

The 79-year-old Talabani, who suffered a stroke six weeks ago, had assumed the role of father figure, the only leader seemingly capable of transcending Iraq's sectarian politics, including his own as a Kurdish nationalist.

The wily political veteran was also seen as an important counterweight to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite Muslim accused by opponents of trying to impose authoritarian rule.

Talabani fell ill at a time of escalating confrontations between al-Maliki's government and the country's large Kurdish and Sunni minorities.

The government and the Kurds, who have autonomy in northern Iraq, have traded threats and dispatched troops in recent weeks in their dispute over oil contracts and contested oil-rich areas.

Tens of thousands of Sunni protesters, complaining of official discrimination, have called for al-Maliki's resignation after a senior Sunni politician's bodyguards were arrested.

"One of the biggest problems with him (Talabani) being ill is that there is no check on al-Maliki," said former U.S. diplomat Peter W. Galbraith. "Simply, al-Maliki respected him. He felt he couldn't be quite as dictatorial in the presence of Talabani."

The prime minister's supporters deny he is a dictator-in-the-making, saying he has not exceeded his constitutional powers.

Iraq has been roiled by sectarian-based political crises, particularly since Iraq's inconclusive 2010 election, in which a Sunni-led bloc emerged as the largest party in parliament, but short of a ruling majority, allowing al-Maliki to keep his job with a broader Shiite coalition.

The political turmoil and a rise in attacks by Sunni insurgents, particularly since the 2011 departure of U.S. troops, have prompted concerns the country could fall apart or descend into another round of sectarian strife, similar to bloody fighting in 2006-2007.

Stephen Wicken of the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said al-Maliki may have overplayed his hand and that Iraq seems to be at greater risk of disintegration.

"Antagonizing the Kurds to the extent that he did at the end of 2012, and turning on the Sunni Arabs really raised the stakes and ratcheted up tensions," Wicken said.

Toby Dodge, an author on Iraqi politics, said al-Maliki has restricted the space for dissent, but argued that the prime minister commands a strong enough armed force to keep the country together.

Iraq's sectarian conflicts have always seemed insurmountable, even for a mediator as skilled as Talabani. But at least, said Galbraith, a long-time friend, "he was able to talk to everyone."

Talabani, overweight and afflicted by heart problems, suffered a stroke in December and was flown to Germany. A spokesman for his office, Barazan Sheik Othman, said Talabani "can hear the voices around him," but needs more rest, suggesting the president is far from recovery.

Talabani has two years left on his second four-year term. His largely ceremonial post has not been declared vacant — a step that would start the countdown toward replacing him in 30 days. Iraq's factions seem to prefer to wait for Talabani's possible return and avoid a potential succession fight.

As a politician, Talabani seemed able to rise above sectarian considerations. "Contrary to all Iraqi politicians, Talabani believes that making concessions to other groups in order to save his country does not represent a humiliation to his personal dignity," said analyst Hadi Jalo.

During Sunni-Shiite violence in 2006 and 2007, Talabani approved the dispatch of Kurdish troops to Baghdad to act as a buffer. In 2010, he refused to sign off on hanging one of Saddam Hussein's closest aides, arguing that 70-year-old Tariq Aziz was too old for execution.

Last year, he sheltered Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a leading Sunni politician whom the government accused of running death squads. After staying at Talabani's guest house, al-Hashemi, who dismissed the charges as politically motivated, escaped to Turkey and was later convicted in absentia.

Before falling ill, Talabani tried unsuccessfully to defuse the confrontation between the Kurdish regional government and al-Maliki's government over the Kirkuk region claimed by both.

In the latest sign of tensions over oil contracts, Iraq's oil minister told energy company Exxon Mobil this week it must choose between its oil deal in Kurdistan and a project in southern Iraq. Kurdish officials, meanwhile, urged the British oil company BP to abandon plans to work in Kirkuk under Baghdad's auspices.

In Kurdistan, Talabani's absence could reopen rifts between his party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and the Kurdish Democratic Party of Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish region.

The two parties waged a power struggle in the 1990s, but then forged an alliance. The parties "are holding constant meetings to overcome any problems that might emerge in the post-Talabani era," said Alla Talabani, a Kurdish legislator and distant relative.

Kurds and Shiites, persecuted under Saddam, had become political allies after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the fall of the Sunni dictator a decade ago. Sunnis, privileged in the Saddam era, now complain of discrimination and demand the cancellation of anti-terrorism laws and other policies they believe overwhelmingly target them.

Wicken said al-Maliki seems to be goading his opponents into uniting against him with his tactics. Last weekend, parliament approved a law with the help of Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers that would limit prime ministers, presidents and parliament speakers to two terms. It was seen as a warning to al-Maliki, though largely symbolic, since Iraq's supreme court could quash the measure.

Last year, Talabani blocked an attempt to unseat al-Maliki with a no-confidence vote in parliament. Some, portraying Talabani as beholden to Shiite-led Iran, say he averted the vote to save the al-Maliki government, which has close ties to Iran. Others argue that Talabani tried to end a potentially destabilizing contest that had little chance of success.

For many Iraqis, Talabani's departure is just one more thing to worry about. "Talabani enjoys the respect of all Iraqis and his absence has contributed to the spread of the crisis ... in the country," said Akram Ali, a 32-year-old Shiite trader from Baghdad.