Nine months ago tomorrow, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani suffered a devastating stroke. While there were rumors at the time he had died on the spot, he was revived and taken while still in a coma to Germany where, over the course of weeks and months, his family said he was improving steadily. They would not allow him any visitors, but last May, amidst a revival of rumors that he had not improved, they released a photograph which purports to show Talabani convalescing. That photograph was not able to dispel rumors that Talabani is paralyzed, unable to talk, and permanently impaired.
In recent weeks, as elections approach in Iraqi Kurdistan—elections in which Talabani’s political party is not expected to do well—a number of Iraqi politicians have sought to meet Talabani in Germany. After all, if Talabani has improved as much as his wife and sons suggest, then he should be able to meet visitors. Without exception, all visitors have been turned away and no new photographs have been forthcoming. Not surprisingly, then, rumors have again rebounded in Iraq that Talabani has died, and that Kurdish politicians are cynically hiding the fact until after the forthcoming Kurdish elections and perhaps until the next Iraqi elections, next year. After all, it will be much easier to resolve Iraq’s outstanding issues as part of a political grand bargain after new elections rather than under the current stalemate.
There is something very, very wrong with a situation in which a president is quite literally kept on ice, but normal isn’t normal in the Middle East. It should not, however, pass without comment in the U.S. press. Talabani was once a favorite source for U.S. journalists, and he is head of state. That he has effectively disappeared for nine months and journalists simply take his immediate family’s testimony as fact is a fundamental betrayal of basic journalism. From a policy perspective, it is also unfortunate since it suggests that a single person is more important than a constitutional system.