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Middle East Briefs: Iraqi president suffers a stroke

- - Tuesday, December 18, 2012

BAGHDAD — Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has been hospitalized in Baghdad after suffering a stroke and is in stable condition, a spokesman for the prime minister said Tuesday.

The development injected new uncertainty into the country's political future, a year after the U.S. military left. The seriousness of the stroke is unclear.

Although his political powers are limited, Mr. Talabani, 79, is respected by many Iraqis as a rare unifying figure able to rise above the ethnic and sectarian rifts that still divide the country.

Known for his joking manner and walruslike mustache, Mr. Talabani has been actively involved in trying to mediate an ongoing crisis between Iraq's central government and the country's Kurdish minority, from which he hails.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has visited the hospital where Mr. Talabani is being treated, his spokesman, Ali al-Moussawi, told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Iraqi state TV also reported that the president has had a stroke.

Rifle-toting soldiers assigned to the presidential guard were deployed around Medical City, Baghdad's largest medical complex, where Mr. Talabani is being treated.

Several senior government officials and lawmakers were seen rushing to the hospital to check on his condition, though their bodyguards were not being allowed inside.

Saadi Peira, a senior official in Mr. Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan political party, said doctors expect they will need two to three days to determine whether Mr. Talabani should continue to receive medical care inside the country or he whether he should be taken to a hospital abroad.

LIBYA

Libya faces huge task in closing desert borders

TRIPOLI — Libya's decision to shut its desert frontiers is a tall order for its fledgling army, which is ill-equipped to seal largely uninhabited Saharan wastes stretching more than 2,500 miles.

Prime Minister Ali Zeidan told the national assembly Tuesday that the measure requires further study and warned that "rash decisions should not be made when we are incapable of implementing them."

Assembly members voted Sunday to order the closure of Libya's borders with Chad, Niger, Sudan and Algeria. They also declared martial law in the vast desert south, citing mounting unrest across the Sahel region.

The Foreign Ministry said Monday that the decision was made in coordination with the countries concerned, following a regional tour by the prime minister to discuss boosting joint action against "terrorists" following the seizure of northern Mali by al Qaeda-linked militants.

Libya plans to establish one authorized border crossing with each of the four neighbors, army spokesman Ali al-Sheikhi said.

Analysts see the measure as a response to the crisis in Mali, which has sparked calls for international intervention, but say that Libyan security forces simply do not have the means to implement it while they remain in disarray after last year's ouster of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Mali does not share a border with Libya, but Mali was afflicted by the spillover of fighters and weapons, both Tuareg and Islamist, from the uprising that overthrew Gadhafi.

IRAN

Ahmadinejad says sanctions won't stop nuke program

TEHRAN — Iran's president says Western sanctions could cause a short delay in Tehran's nuclear program but will not slow it down substantially.

State TV quoted Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Tuesday as claiming that the "West is not happy with Iran's progress" in various technological fields, including uranium enrichment, which is a possible pathway to nuclear arms.

His remarks come just days after Tehran again rebuffed visiting U.N. nuclear agency inspectors from visiting the Parchin military base near the Iranian capital.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has linked the site to suspected secret nuclear weapons research. Iran denies that, insisting Parchin is only a conventional military facility.

The West has imposed a series of punitive oil and banking measures against Iran over concerns that Tehran is pursuing nuclear weapons. Iran denies the charge.

IRAN

Supreme leader gets clicks with Facebook page

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A Facebook page purportedly created by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attracted nearly 10,000 followers Tuesday, although the site's content and style raise serious questions about its authenticity.

Iranian authorities had no immediate comment on the site, which apparently went online last week but only recently gained prominence among social media watchers.

Despite the possibility that it is a hoax, the page has generated at least 170 comments — laudatory and derogatory, and nearly all in Farsi — that highlight the deep political divisions in Iran and possibly opposition fervor from expatriate Iranians.

One post compared Ayatollah Khamenei to a celebrated ruler of ancient Persia, Cyrus the Great, who significantly expanded the Persian empire 2,500 years ago.

Another wrote: "Mr. Khamenei, how are you visiting this page? With proxy?" It was a reference to Iran's blocking of Facebook and many other Western social media sites, and the efforts to bypass the restrictions using proxy server links from outside Iran.

The State Department said Monday it will keep tabs on the page, but had no comment on whether it was genuine or not.

Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland joked that Washington is curious how many "likes" it receives.

But much about the page — including an informal photo of Ayatollah Khamenei riding in a car — suggest it was not sanctioned by Iran's top leader.

From wire dispatches and staff reports