What’s next in Iraqi politics?

After months of delays, Iraq is finally moving forward with the formation of its new government. On September 15, the new Iraqi parliament selected Mohammed al-Halbousi to be speaker. While some Western analysts dismissed him as an Iranian choice, they miss the broader point that Iraqi party lists are increasingly religiously diverse. To suggest Halbousi, the Sunni Arab governor of the Anbar governorate is an Iranian proxy, is on its face ridiculous. The politics behind his selection were complex (and, frankly, rumors that parliamentarians received bribes in return for their votes continue to swirl) but the old narratives to describe the sectarian character of Iraqi politics simply no longer apply.

Iraq's new president al-Halbousi speaks with reporters in Basra, Iraq.
The new speaker of Iraq’s parliament Mohammed al-Halbousi, speaks during a news conference in Basra, Iraq September 18, 2018. Reuters

A number of Kurdish figures continue to contest the presidency—the next major office which must be determined. Once again, the politics behind the selection are complex. Barham Salih, a favorite of many in the Washington foreign policy crowd, is one nominee for president. His path to the presidency, however, has damaged his reputation in Iraqi Kurdistan: In order to secure the support of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), he rejoined it and abandoned the reformist party he led in elections; Kurds complain he is hypocritical for joining the PUK after months of pointing out its corruption and questioning its election fraud and question for what, if anything, he now stands. That said, Barham is charismatic, fluent in Kurdish, Arabic, Persian, and English, and has had long experience in Baghdad in a number of previous portfolios. His chief competitor, Fuad Hussein, is chief-of-staff to de facto Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani. On the surface, he is a curious choice given his and Barzani’s efforts to secede from Iraq. Corruption has long swirled around Barzani’s office; Massoud and Fuad made no effort to differentiate between personal wealth, party holdings, and Kurdistan Regional Government property. But, while the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) to which Fuad belongs has been antagonistic to Baghdad ever since the fall of Saddam Hussein (not always before that, though), it is better at the wheeling…

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