US President Barack Obama's plan to withdraw troops from Iraq is predicated on an assumption that Iraq's stability is durable. On 29 January 2009, General Ray Odierno, commander of the Multi-National Force-Iraq, said: "We are getting close to enduring stability, which enables us really to reduce [US military forces]." Advocates of military withdrawal by the United States are optimistic: the 31 January 2009 provincial elections proceeded without much incident.
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 Baghdad on 7 April, as well as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani each conciliate crisis and reconcile disparate interests. Without them, stability and security in Iraq may not be sustainable.
Iraq's National Assembly elected Talabani, a septuagenarian Kurdish political leader, as president on 6 April 2005, nine weeks after Iraq's first free elections. Talabani is a pivotal official. Fluent in Arabic, Persian, Kurdish and English, he is equally at ease in Baghdad, Washington and Tehran. While Iraq's executive on paper is weak and ceremonial, Talabani has used his relationships cultivated during decades in opposition to cajole Sunnis and Shia, Kurds and Arabs into compromise--first on the constitution and then to walk absolutist politicians back from the brink of civil war.
The Obama administration, like the Bush presidency, sees Talabani as a primary ally in Iraq. Vice President-elect Joseph Biden visited Talabani just eight days before inauguration to discuss Obama's strategy and Obama telephoned Talabani less than two weeks into his presidency to discuss the way ahead. Talabani is not deemed a figure head but a partner.
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 Amman for emergency medical care after falling unconscious. He was later transferred to Minnesota's Mayo Clinic, which discreetly treats foreign leaders suffering heart ailments and cancer. Jordanian doctors contradicted Iraqi officials who said Talabani was suffering from exhaustion. Talabani made at least three subsequent visits to the Mayo Clinic, the first in May 2007 for 10 days of tests. In June 2008, the clinic confirmed Talabani's return. His office said he was receiving treatment for a knee problem. Two months later, Talabani returned and, after he missed several events, his office acknowledged he had had emergency heart surgery.
Talabani returned to duty, but his age and poor health make him an unwise pillar upon which to tie Washington's Iraq policy. While Western officials treat the Iraqi president as a permanent fixture, senior cadres in his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party openly jockey for position in a post-Talabani Iraq. Talabani's former deputy Noshirwan Mustafa broke from the PUK in November 2006 and will now head a list to challenge the PUK at polls on 19 May. On 7 October 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 Iraq's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That slot went instead to Hoshyar Zebari, Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader Massoud Barzani's uncle. However, tribal politics may preclude Zebari's promotion to the presidency. Not only is he an outcast within the Zebari tribe (which is centred on Mosul) for backing Barzani but like Barham, his popularity among Iraqi peers falls short of that afforded him by Western diplomats. Barzani, increasingly unpopular in Iraqi Kurdistan and long dismissive of Iraqi unity, would not politically be able to replace Talabani. Talabani had served in the Iraqi army and after the fall of Saddam spent as much time in Baghdad as in Kurdistan. Barzani on the other hand antagonised Arabs with his statements and seldom voiced any consideration for Iraq's unity. Accordingly, there is no obvious Kurdish leader able to succeed Talabani on the national stage.
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 US politicians publicly denounced Maliki as too polarising to lead. In August 2007, Maliki became a campaign issue in the US. Hillary Clinton, then front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination and now US secretary of state, declared her "hope that the Iraqi parliament will replace Prime Minister Maliki with a less divisive and more unifying figure". Washington's assessment changed as Maliki both showed willingness to reach across sectarian lines to Sunnis in Anbar province and to take on the excesses of Shia militias. He then proved his mettle to Washington by forcing the Status of Forces Agreement through parliament in November 2008.
For the White House, the adversary became an asset. US officials cheered the success of Maliki's supporters in provincial elections, especially given the US assumption that the ISCI strays too close to Iranian interests. However, Maliki's consolidation of control undercuts the development of potential successors, a dangerous phenomenon in a country where all officials remain vulnerable to assassination. Meanwhile, Maliki's Dawa party is characterised by its factionalism, making the process of succession more intricate.
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 Iraq's leading religious figure and possesses significant implicit political clout. Like many traditional Shia clerics, Sistani sees his role as an indirect guide rather than an active political leader. While he advocates Shia empowerment, he tempers populist anger, discourages Iranian-style clerical political control and eschews violence. When he dies, it is unclear who might fill his role. Najaf is home to other Grand Ayatollahs--Afghan-born Muhammad Ishaq Fayadh and India-born Bashir Najafi--but neither has a large enough following to replace Sistani.
Many senior Shia leaders live in Iran but to prevent even passive challenge to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the most prominent traditional clerics in Iran--Hossein Ali Montazeri and Hossein Kazemeyni Boroujerdi--remain under house arrest or in prison. At best, should Sistani die in the near future, there will be no clear marja at-taqlid (source of emulation), to represent the Shia voice. In such a situation, firebrands such as al-Sadr may find little impediment to religious demagoguery.
Alternatively, 73-year-old Iraqi-born Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah may return from Lebanon. While scholars debate whether or not Fadlallah is a patron for Lebanese Hizbullah, they do not debate either his long association with the group nor his support for their actions. Should Fadlallah return, no cleric is likely to be able to challenge him as the pre-eminent Shia religious authority in Iraq. As much as Sistani has been a voice for calm, his successor could become a force for discord.
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 Baghdad has improved greatly since 2007, but while success rests upon the longevity of old men and unwillingness to acknowledge the prime minister's mortality, any gains could fast reverse.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI.