Some commentators recently celebrated the Iraqi election as a sign that democracy is taking root in Iraq’s soil. This optimistic view is justified given the bleak situation of democratic transformation in the region. Authoritarianism in the Middle East persists as the common model of governing, even in countries that witnessed popular uprisings and demands for regime change just a few years ago.

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Following the 2005 election of Iraq’s National Assembly, the winning Shia Islamist coalition selected Ibrahim al-Jaafari, then a senior leader in the Dawa party, for the position of Prime Minister in the transitional government. Dawa is the oldest Shia Islamist party, but not the largest. Competing groups within the Shia alliance selected a member in the party for the position to sustain minimal unity, which was threatened by the fierce competition between the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the Sadrist movement.

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Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi recently announced his new war against corruption. In using the term “war,” he intended to convey the difficulty of implementing a productive policy to fight corruption. Abadi hopes to build on his successes in the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the crisis with Kurdistan by turning his attention to a popular and persistent demand: fighting corruption. International financial institutions and nonprofit organizations—including the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF)- identify rampant corruption as a main impediment to development in Iraq, and Transparency International consistently rank Iraq among the most corrupt countries.

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One of the main disputes behind tensions between the Iraqi federal government and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) includes disagreement over budget allocation. This month, the Iraqi government approved the proposed budget for 2018 and sent it to the parliament for debate in the coming weeks. The draft budget, strongly criticized by the KRG, is the latest episode in the contention between Baghdad’s vision of a strong center and KRG’s preference of strong regions. It also highlights a fundamental problem: the actual meaning of Iraqi federalism, which still lacks a clear institutional framework.

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Not many heads of governments in the Middle East can move swiftly between Riyadh, Cairo, Amman, Ankara, and Tehran, and receive a warm welcome in all those capitals. Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, followed this itinerary in the last few days, trying to create the image of a competent leader who victoriously took Iraq out of an existential fight with the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) and saved its unity from what is perceived in Baghdad as “Kurdish secessionism”. Iraqi senior officials always advocated the idea that a strong Iraq could be a bridge in this highly divided and polarized region, a message Abadi emphasized when he demanded the United States and Iran spare his country the ramifications of their conflict.

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In the wake of the September 25 referendum in Kurdistan, the Iraqi government announced on October 15 that it began a military deployment to reestablish authority in Kirkuk in coordination with the Peshmerga. It soon became clear that the Peshmerga mentioned belonged to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—specifically, the Talabani family wing—which views aggressive moves toward independence with far more skepticism than its political rivals in the Kurdistan Regional Government dominated by Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The PUK drew the ire of fellow Kurds who viewed the deal as facilitating the federal forces’ reclamation of the territory. To complicate matters further, some reports indicated that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG) Quds Force leader Qassim Suleimani appears to have played a role in convincing the Talabani family to broker the deal in the absence of any other international or regional mediator. These events highlight the depth of intra-Kurdish divisions at a time of rapidly rising tensions.

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Monday’s referendum in Kurdistan resulted in a situation whereby all parties lack good options. To be sure, Masoud Barzani, the leader of Kurdistan Region Government (KRG), achieved some immediate political gains. He managed to mobilize his base by calling for and conducting the referendum despite international objections. In doing so, he strengthened his political stance and forced his Kurdish rivals to follow his leadership, which itself is legally dubious since his term was extended via a partisan agreement of ambiguous legal basis. Though the results are still not finalized, the vote was expected to give a clear ‘yes’ to the call for independence. Now comes the difficult question: what is Barzani going to do with the referendum and its outcome?

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