UPDATE 5-Iraqi president in hospital after suffering stroke

* 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

on Tuesday.

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.

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