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Will Iraq Have a Female President?

While Iraqi officials have a tight hold on news, reports both from Iranian doctors who treated Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and some Iraqi sources suggest that Jalal Talabani may be stable, but that he cannot recover nor, for that matter, can he live without permanent attachment to life support machines. Let us hope such rumors are untrue, but the embargo on news does little to contradict the whispered reports.

Over at CNN, I discussed the politics surrounding the choice of successor, and at AEI-Ideas, I outlined some of the candidates whose names have been bantered about as successor. Several Iraqi Kurds—and a commenter on my AEI-Ideas post–have put forward another name: Jalal Talabani’s wife, Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, also known as Hero Khan.

Hero Khan has long been a major power within Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Her power is based not only on her marriage, but also her pedigree and frankly her intellect and ability. Her father, Ibrahim Ahmad, was a famous Kurdish writer whose split with Masud Barzani’s father ultimately led to the PUK’s creation. Many Westerners are impressed with her for her obvious independence and intelligence. I first met the chain-smoking Hero more than 12 years ago, when she gave me a tour of the television studio she ran in Sulaymani. She came in wearing a t-shirt and jeans to serve me coffee as I waited, and it took me a moment to realize that she was—at that point—the PUK’s first lady. She also has established a number of “non-governmental organizations” in Iraqi Kurdistan, most notably Kurdistan Save the Children.

Kurds, however, will also point out her dark side: She is a ruthless businesswoman—who has not hesitated to use her position, skirt the law or have competitors hurt in order to score triumphs. Independent Kurdish journalists suggest she is unforgiving, defensive and, at times, spiteful against those she feels have wronged her. (Barham Salih can thank Hero Khan’s interference for his earlier failure to become foreign minister. To a lesser extent, I have suffered her cold shoulder when, ironically at her son Qubad’s suggestion, I wrote a long essay detailing the growing problem of corruption in Kurdistan.) Her NGOs are among the most partisan; political independents need not apply. Kurdish medical professionals visiting the United States on exchanges say she is also a manic depressive. She will replicate the best aspects of Jalal Talabani’s personality when she is riding high, but may allow the darker sides of her personality shine through when not.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and PUK, based on their previous agreements, are insistent that the presidency should not only be reserved for a Kurd, but for a member of the PUK. (Many Arabs dispute this.) In the wake of Jalal Talabani’s stroke, the internally popular Kosrat Rasul has become provisional head of the PUK, and the externally popular Barham Salih has become deputy PUK head. That leaves Hero Khan—arguably the PUK’s most powerful member—left floating, a strange outcome unless she has her eye on something bigger.

The presidency is ceremonial—the speaker of parliament wields more power—and both Iraqi Kurds and Iraq Arabs say that the next president will be more constrained by the limits of the presidency than was Talabani, whose gregarious personality and the goodwill of Iranians and Americans allowed him to assume greater power than his position merited.

Should Hero Khan assume the presidency, the results will be mixed. Traditionally, she has been more willing to stand up to the KDP than her husband. The symbolism of a female president in Iraq will be positive, especially against the backdrop of Muqtada al-Sadr’s fierce Islamism–though her accession will also reinforce the worst aspects of Iraqi wasta.


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