Conflict Drivers within the Kurdistan Region of Iraq: The Role of Patronage Networks

Principal Investigators:
Zmkan Ali Saleem and Mac Skelton
Duration: April 2019 – March 2020
Supported by: UK Department for International Development (DfID)


KRG President (and leading KDP member) Nechirvan Barzani meets with Kosrat Rasul Ali, acting leader of the PUK. Source: K24

The post-2003 order has resulted in the consolidation of an elaborate patronage system across the areas under the control of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). In 2003 after the toppling of the regime, the main two Kurdish political parties received a large injection of funds from the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), enabling the establishment of patronage networks in each party’s zone of influence.

This project interrogates the current state of these networks following the recent dual shocks of 2014 and 2017. In 2014, conflict between Baghdad and Erbil over oil distribution reached its peak, resulting in the former cutting the KRG’s share of revenue to zero. The KRG could no longer pay salaries in full, and patronage networks were threatened. This diminishment of resources initiated a period in which the KRG searched for other means of political mobilization, namely, ethno-nationalist rhetoric around the prospect of independence from Baghdad. In 2017, the ill-timed independence referendum provoked the Government of Iraq to reestablish sovereignty over the disputed territories, including oil rich Kirkuk. Not only did this event further diminish the Kurdish parties’ access to cash, it also created a political crisis among Kurds. Heated intra-Kurdish disagreements over the loss of the disputed territories led to the partial unraveling of the KDP–PUK duopoly. Now analysts warn that the region is quickly reverting back to a two-party system with largely separate administrations in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah for the KDP and PUK, respectively. The present state and future of the KRG’s political patronage system remains unclear.

This project forms part of the Conflict Research Programme, funded by the UK Department for International Development to provide research and policy advice on how the risk and impact of violent conflict might be more effectively reduced through development and governance interventions.

Project Outputs

Research Team


Zmkan Ali Saleem | Principal Investigator

Zmkan is Senior Researcher at IRIS. In that role he has served as lead researcher for projects funded by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and the Norwegian Research Council.


Mac Skelton | Principal Investigator

Mac is Director of Research & Policy at IRIS. Skelton is an anthropologist and Middle East analyst with field research and programmatic experience in Yemen, Lebanon, and Iraq.




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