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Iraqi President Talabani Likely To Retire From Office Next Year

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani
BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Iraq's President Jalal Talabani is likely to retire from office rather than seek another term when his mandate expires at the end of this year, a senior official from his party has said.

But Talabani, who underwent heart surgery in the United States in August last year, will remain head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, a senior parliamentarian from the Kurdish alliance, Fouad Masoum, said.

"It doesn't mean he will give up his political life. It just means he will not go for the presidential post," he told Reuters. "He wants to take a rest."

A Kurd, Talabani has been president since 2005. Although he does not wield executive power in Iraq, his role is seen as critical in maintaining the country's delicate ethnic balance.

His two vice presidents are a Shi'ite and a Sunni Arab.

Their mandates expire at the end of December, when Iraq holds parliamentary polls that could radically alter the power balance in Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's coalition government.

Parliament elects the three-member Presidency Council.

Masoum said Talabani's role as broker between Iraq's often fractious ethnic and sectarian groups had worn him out.

"That task is very tough...working with all Iraqi parties and trying to bring together their diverse viewpoints," Masoum said, adding Talabani's choice "is not a final decision."

His stepping down could come at a dangerous time for Iraq.

Relations between the Shi'ite Arab-led government in Baghdad and largely autonomous Kurdistan in the north are likely to remained heated. Disputes over territory along the Kurdistan border and oil rights show no sign of being resolved.

Though Talabani has usually sought to stay out of Iraq's political wrangling, his council's veto has sometimes shot down legislation that would have been divisive.

In July last year, he blocked a provincial elections law that his fellow Kurds bitterly opposed because they feared it would set back their goal of controlling the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. The law was later redrafted to please all sides.