Iraq’s political divisions will require considerable efforts at reconciliation and better communication among the country’s major political parties, or those divisions are likely to widen, Rowsch N. Shaways, Iraq’s federal deputy prime minister, said during a visit to the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) on March 5.

IRAQ DPM

Most of Iraq’s major political parties have become religious- or ethnic-based blocs—a situation that should be changed through dialogue and consensus, said Shaways, a veteran Kurdish political leader from the Kurdistan Democratic Party. “So far, we have not been able to overcome that,” he said. “This division is reflected in all the government institutions.” Shaways called for a “unified strategy” to move forward with an elected government that reflects both Iraq’s diversity and its cultural “homogeneity.”

Shaways earlier served as prime minister of the Kurdistan government and, in 2004, vice president of Iraq. He was an active participant in the drafting of Iraq’s federal constitution.

As long as his country suffers significant internal divisions and cannot advance its economy sufficiently, Shaways said at USIP, “Iraq will be a negative factor in the whole region.” By contrast, if Iraq can achieve domestic reconciliation, acts in accord with its Constitution and democracy, and makes economic progress, it “can be a factor of stability in the whole region,” he said.

Iraq is planning to hold nationwide parliamentary elections on April 30, though concerns have grown about whether insurgent violence—especially in the western province of Anbar—and countermeasures by state security forces will allow secure, unhindered voting in all parts of the country and on schedule. Militants linked to al-Qaida, playing on deepening unease among Sunnis at the direction of Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government, have escalated their attacks since last year. Overall political tensions in Iraq, along with the conflict in next-door Syria, Shaways said, are feeding the violence in the western part of the country.

An “extended delay” in the election—one beyond a few days or weeks—would be dangerous, warned Shaways: “It will basically undermine confidence in the political process.”

The uncertainties surrounding the elections are being used to promote instability, Shaways said. “The period before the elections makes it a fertile ground for terrorism,” and so would any political void that appears afterwards, he said.

Shaways also cited disagreements between the central Iraqi government and provinces over legal authorities and policy roles as further complicating Iraqi politics, including an ongoing budgetary dispute between the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) that has led to the suspension of some payments to the KRG in the past month.

Shaways was accompanied at the USIP meeting by Thamir Ghadhban, chairman of the prime minister’s Advisory Council. Ghadhban said that Iraq’s Sunni-Shia divide is “overplayed” in the West, but he added, “We need your help to assist us to calm down this schism.” He said that young people identify themselves more as part of a nation than as members of an ethnic or religious group. “They want to build the country based on being Iraqis,” he said.

Ghadhban cited progress on such issues as agriculture, education and water management over the past eight years, but said that stubborn problems with Iraq’s banking system were slowing development and economic reforms. Whoever prevails in the upcoming elections, he argued, should make further reform the “main priority” and will have public support if it does so.

The visiting Iraqis were introduced by former U.S. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, the chairman of USIP’s board of directors. USIP has been working on the ground in Iraq since 2003, shortly after the U.S.-led military intervention. Programs that strengthen the capacity of Iraqis to prevent and manage conflict nonviolently remain an Institute priority, Hadley said, and they entail the transfer of responsibility for those efforts to Iraqi partners over time.

The Institute has been hosting a series of leading Iraqi politicians to assess the country’s recently growing political violence and its sectarian dimensions, prospects for the April 30 elections and changes in the region’s security and political scene.

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