Doctor says Iraqi president speaking after stroke

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi President Jalal Talabani is able to speak and understand people around him as he recovers from a stroke he suffered in December, a doctor responsible for his medical caresaid Sunday.

In an interview, Dr. Najmaldin Karim described the improvement in the president’s health as encouraging. Karim is a neurosurgeon who is also governor of the Iraqi province of Kirkuk. He oversees Talabani’s medical care when he is in Iraq, although the president is currently in Germany for treatment.

“He’s improving. He’s talking. He’s conversing. He understands when he’s spoken to. It’s a good development,” Karim said. “We’re very encouraged and excited by this.”

Karim said he is in daily contact with Talabani’s German medical team. He is hopeful Talabani will be able to return to Iraq, but acknowledged that any decision rests with the doctors treating him in Europe.

“We’ll have to just take it one day at a time,” he said.

The 79-year-old Talabani was rushed to a hospital late on Dec. 17 after suffering a stroke. Few specific details have been released about his health, fueling intense speculation about the seriousness of his condition and his ability to continue with his job. He was flown to a Berlin area hospital for further treatment shortly after his condition was stabilized.

No images of Talabani have been released since he fell ill, and he has not been heard from personally.

Some Iraqi officials and Baghdad-based diplomats have said he slipped into a coma shortly after the stroke happened, or was otherwise gravely incapacitated.

Talabani is overweight and has undergone several medical procedures in recent years, including heart surgery in 2008 and knee replacement surgery last year.

On Feb. 18, Talabani’s office issued a statement saying the president continues to respond well to therapy. Two presidential officials reached Sunday declined to comment, saying that Karim is the only person authorized to discuss Talabani’s condition.

The Iraqi presidency is a largely ceremonial role, with the prime minister acting as the head of government. But Talabani is seen by many Iraqis as something of a unifying statesman, and he has at times played an important role in mediating disputes among the country’s ethnic and sectarian factions.

Talabani became ill at a particularly crucial moment in Iraqi politics. His stroke occurred while he was trying to calm an ongoing dispute between the central government and Iraq’s Kurdish ethnic minority, from which he hails. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Sunni Muslims have been rallying for nearly two months against the Shiite-led government, increasing sectarian tensions nearly a decade after the U.S.-led invasion.