Iraq’s Political Marketplace at the Subnational Level: The Struggle for Power in Three Provinces

Since 2003, analysts have conceptualized Iraqi politics from the standpoint of the national scene in Baghdad. From this perspective, power dynamics in Iraq are understood through the lens of a national quota-based system (called muhassasah in Arabic) that distributes ministries and oil revenues across the country’s political groups according to ethno-sectarian allotments. Ignored in this national-level approach are the distinct arenas of political competition beyond the capital, where both national and subnational political actors struggle for control over local oil and gas fields, border crossings, and government contracts. This report focuses on three of Iraq’s most strategically important governorates, Nineveh, Basra, and Diyala. Since 2003, political parties and their corresponding armed forces – in addition to international actors such as the US military – have vied for influence in the three provinces through locally distinct forms of clientelism and violence. The report tracks the key shifts in each political marketplace between 2003 and the present, paying particular attention to the evolving usages of violence and flows of political finance. Political power at the local level is constituted and maintained both through coercion and transactional deals. Opportunistic alliances often cut across ethno-sectarian lines, defying assumptions around post-2003 identity-based politics. The primacy of purchasing loyalties over providing services has led to poor governance and pervasive instability. In the short and medium term, the political marketplaces of Nineveh, Basra and Diyala are likely to witness particularly turbulent dynamics due to the global crash in oil prices related to the COVID-19 pandemic, driving the parties and armed groups controlling the three governorates to compete more uncompromisingly over non-oil forms of revenue generation. In light of such developments on the horizon, the newly installed government in Baghdad has an ever-decreasing set of options at its disposal. The report concludes with both country-wide and locally-specific policy implications.

This report was co-published with the Conflict Research Programme at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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