* Talabani is important mediating influence in Iraq
* Veteran Kurdish leader suffered ill health this year
* Under power-sharing deal, presidency held by Kurd
BAGHDAD, Dec 18 (Reuters) - Iraqi President Jalal Talabani,
a Kurd who has mediated among Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish
parties, was in hospital on Tuesday after suffering a stroke
that left him in "critical but stable condition", government
officials and lawmakers said.
Without Talabani, Iraq would lose an influential peace-maker
who often eased tensions in the fragile power-sharing government
and negotiated in the growing rift over oil between Baghdad and
the OPEC member country's autonomous Kurdistan region.
Reports on his medical condition varied. Three government
sources said he was in critical condition, but his office said
the 79-year-old president was stable under intensive medical
supervision after receiving treatment for blocked arteries.
"President Talabani has suffered a light stroke. His
condition is stable now and doctors are closely monitoring him
and if they decide he should be transferred outside then he'll
go," veteran Kurdish politician Mahmoud Othman, a close Talabani
associate who was in the Baghdad hospital.
Talabani had been suffering from ill health for much of this
year and received medical treatment overseas several times in
the last two years.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki visited the hospital earlier
TOUGH TIMES AHEAD?
Under Iraq's constitution, the parliament should elect a new
president if the post becomes vacant and Iraq's power-sharing
deal calls for the presidency to go to a Kurd while two vice
presidents are shared by a Sunni Muslim and a Shi'ite Muslim.
Political analysts said former Kurdistan prime minister
Barham Salih is favoured candidate to replace Talabani should
the president be incapacitated.
But his exit from Iraqi politics would come at a sensitive
time and any succession would be complicated, a year after the
last American troops left the country.
"He is the most moderate among Iraqi politicians and the
most able to defuse political shocks. I do not think anyone will
be able to fill his position as a president and as a
politician," Iraqi analyst Ibrahim al-Sumaidaie said.
Iraq law would see one of the vice presidents take over
Talabani's duties before the parliamentary vote. But Iraq's
Sunni Vice President, Tareq al-Hashemi, is outside the country
after he fled to escape charges he ran death squads. He has been
sentenced to death in absentia.
Any parliament vote would also be complex, with Maliki
locked in a struggle with Sunni, Kurdish and some Shi'ite rivals
in the power-sharing government. Talabani was crucial in helping
the Shi'ite leader survive a no-confidence motion directed
against him earlier this year.
Talabani also recently helped ease a military stand-off
between Maliki's central government and the president of
autonomous Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, in their long-running
dispute over oil-field rights and internal boundaries.
That situation remains sensitive after the two sides sent
troops to reinforce positions along their internal frontier.
Kurdish forces said on Tuesday they fired on an Iraqi
military helicopter near Sikanyan town just north of the
ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk, to keep the aircraft from
taking surveillance pictures of their military positions.
There were no casualties in the incident, authorities said.
A veteran of the Kurdish guerrilla movement, Talabani
survived wars, exile and infighting in northern Iraq to become
the country's first Kurdish president a few years after the 2003
invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.