by Michael Rubin
US President Barack Obama's plan to withdraw troops from
According to US government figures, violence is down to 2003 levels. Progress, however, has less to do with the governance system, and more to do with key personalities: President Jalal
Talabani, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, both of whom met Obama in
The Obama administration, like the Bush presidency, sees Talabani as a primary ally in
However, basing policy on Talabani is not without risk. On 12 March 2009, Talabani told an Iranian interviewer that he would not seek re-election when his term ends this year. This is not definitive: Talabani has been known to change his mind and the White House may enlist Talabani to mediate even after his return to his hometown of Sulaymaniyah.
Retirement, however, is not the main concern. At 75, Talabani's health is tenuous. In February 2007, he was flown to
Talabani returned to duty, but his age and poor health make him an unwise pillar upon which to tie
2008, a number of other senior PUK officials broke away to form the Movement for Democratic Change. Still, none of these officials will be able to replace Talabani on the national stage.
Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih is popular in Western capitals, but lacks a powerbase in either the PUK's peshmerga militia or its intelligence services. Equally as important, he is disliked by Talabani's wife, Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, whose opposition dashed Barham's hopes of leading
Unlike Talabani, 48-year-old Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is in good health. Maliki's May 2006 ascension to the premiership surprised observers. The White House had hoped Vice-President and former minister of finance Adil Mahdi, a moderate within the Islamic Supreme
Council of Iraq (ISCI), would win the top slot. Many
For the White House, the adversary became an asset.
The ISCI provides no clear alternative. Its leader, Abdul Aziz Hakim, has terminal cancer, and it is uncertain whether his 37-year-old son Ammar can consolidate control. In such a vacuum, no leader can rise above the fray without Iranian financial and logistical support. Western officials are anxious that under such circumstances, Moqtada al-Sadr emerges as the strongest Shia leader.
The greatest wildcard is 78-year-old Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. He is
Many senior Shia leaders live in
Alternatively, 73-year-old Iraqi-born Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah may return from
As long as Iraqi security is dominated by personalities rather than checks and balances, stability in the country will be a mirage. The situation in
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