ARBIL, Iraq, July 19 President Jalal Talabani
returned to Iraq on Saturday for the first time since he
suffered a stroke a year and a half ago and was flown abroad for
medical treatment, state television said.
During Talabani's absence, Sunni insurgents have overrun a
large area of Iraq and negotiations are currently underway to
form a new power-sharing government that would replace him as
Iraqi politicians named a moderate Sunni Islamist as speaker
of parliament earlier this week, but have yet to choose a
president or prime minister, a position which the incumbent Nuri
al-Maliki is fighting to retain.
Although the presidency is a largely ceremonial position,
Talabani was widely seen a unifying figure, both within Iraq and
his own Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party, which has
struggled to contain internal divisions without him at the helm.
In broadcast footage of the octogenarian earlier this year,
he appeared much weakened, suggesting he is unlikely to reprise
an active role in politics.
Nevertheless, Talabani's return will help rally support for
the PUK and may help unite competing factions around one
candidate for the presidency, which is typically from the party.
This week, the PUK's Najmaldin Karim nominated himself for
president without the blessing of the party leadership, Kurdish
political sources said, pitting himself as a rival to Barham
Saleh, who had been touted as the frontrunner for the post.
In recent years, the PUK has lost ground in its own
stronghold of Sulaimaniyah, upsetting the political duopoly,
whereby it had shared power with the Kurdistan Democratic Party
(KDP) since the region gained autonomy in 1991.
The PUK was outperformed by former opposition party Gorran
(Change) in a regional paliamentary election last year and
pushed down into third place.
But in the nationwide Iraqi election in April, the PUK
regained stature thanks to its popularity Kirkuk, which is
outside the formal boundary of the region but was brought under
Kurdish control last month.
(Reporting by Isabel Coles Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)