Iraq’s parliament on Monday gave Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi three days to present a new non-party cabinet to fight corruption or potentially face a no-confidence vote amid street protests piling on the pressure for action.
A flash on state television called Thursday the “final deadline” for Abadi, who said more than six weeks ago that he would replace ministers with technocrats unaffiliated with political parties.
Yet other politicians, including some within his own party, have pushed back against a reshuffle, fearing it could weaken the political patronage networks that have sustained their wealth and influence for more than a decade.
Powerful Shi’ite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on Sunday launched a personal sit-in inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses embassies and government offices.
His supporters extended a week-old sit-in just outside the district’s gates, huddling in tents and under umbrellas in heavy rain. They also demonstrated in the southern city of Basra.
Sadr, who commands the loyalty of tens of thousands of supporters, including Shi’ite fighters who helped defend Baghdad against Sunni Islamic State militants in 2014, has re-emerged as a leader in matters of state in recent months.
“If Abadi does not present his new government by Thursday, then he will be questioned in Saturday’s (parliamentary session),” said Sadr bloc MP Yasir al-Husseini. “This will be the start of a number of steps leading to a no-confidence vote.”
Failing to deliver on long-promised anti-corruption measures could weaken Abadi’s government just as Iraqi forces are gearing up to try and recapture the northern city of Mosul from Islamic State.
Academics and bureaucrats
Support in parliament for withdrawing confidence from Abadi did not appear unanimous on Monday.
Abbas al-Bayati, an MP from Abadi’s ruling National Alliance coalition, said lawmakers would want an explanation for any further delay of reform steps but had not agreed to pursue a no confidence vote.
“Between now and Thursday is sufficient and if he cannot do it by then, he should come and clarify why in order to convince the blocs and the street,” Bayati told Reuters.
He said Abadi had composed a preliminary roster of candidates for the new cabinet and coalition leaders were consulting with Sunni, Kurdish and other Shi’ite politicians “to create a balanced list that has the standards of professionalism and technocratic experience”.
It was not clear which ministers were likely to be replaced but analysts doubted that substantive change was in the works.
An U.S.-based Iraqi academic, Abbas Kadhim, tweeted last week that he had been short-listed for foreign minister, and a government source said senior ministry civil servants might be elevated to fill some positions.
Political analyst Fadhil Abu Ragheef said new technocrat ministers would likely come from Iraq’s existing parties and blocs. “They will not bring anything new,” he said. “This is about changing the facade only; the core will remain the same.”
Moqtada al-Sadr stages sit-in inside Green Zone to push for reforms
Powerful Iraqi Shi’ite Muslim leader Moqtada al-Sadr entered Baghdad’s Green Zone on Sunday, the heavily-fortified center of the capital housing government buildings and embassies, on Sunday to keep up pressure on the government to enact reforms.
Thousands of Sadr’s supporters began a sit-in at the district’s gates more than a week ago and continued to camp out despite heavy rains earlier in the day, but Sadr took the protest forward by entering the zone itself.
“Beloved protesters, I will enter the Green Zone by myself and (my escorts) only. I sit in inside the Green Zone and you sit in at its gates. None of you move,” he told them before walking past a security checkpoint near parliament and the upscale Rashid Hotel into the Green Zone.
Sadr is urging Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to move ahead with a plan announced more than six weeks ago to replace current ministers with unaffiliated technocrats in a bid to tackle systemic political patronage that has abetted graft.
Television channels affiliated with Sadr’s political party showed him greeting guards as he entered the district with armed guards, then sit down on a white plastic chair beside concrete barriers. He sipped on bottled water before sitting on the ground inside a green tent his aides had erected.
Protesters waving Iraqi flags outside expressed support for the move by Sadr, one of the country’s most savvy political operators who commands the loyalty of millions of Iraqis and has at times appeared very close to neighboring Shi’ite power Iran.
One supporter held a sign reading: “No retreat, no blood, no surrender.”
It was not immediately clear how long Sadr, the 42-year-old who rose to prominence when his Mahdi Army battled U.S. troops following the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, planned to continue his personal demonstration.
Along with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, Sadr has re-emerged as a leader in matters of state in recent months after a period of relative quietude.
Abadi, who has been slow to deliver reforms but pledged to reveal a cabinet reshuffle this week, has voiced concern that Shi’ite street protests could spin out of control and endanger Iraq’s security when it needs to focus on fighting Islamic State.
Corruption and the U.S.-backed war against the ultra-hardline Sunni militants are depleting the government’s finances as revenues are declining due to lower oil prices.
If Abadi fails to deliver long-promised anti-corruption measures, his government may be weakened just as Iraqi forces are gearing up to try and recapture the northern city of Mosul.
The Green Zone, originally set up to protect U.S. occupation forces from suicide bombings, has been kept in place by successor Iraqi authorities for security reasons.
Roads and bridges over the Tigris River leading to the district were closed on Sunday, shutting down movement in central Baghdad as night fell.