Thousands demonstrate for reforms in Iraq

Thousands demonstrate for reforms in Iraq

Lawmakers approve cabinet candidates after weeks of delays and chaos

Iraqi supporters of the Sadrist movement hold national flags and shout slogans during a demonstration to press for reforms on April 26, 2016, at Baghdad's Tahrir Square. (AFP PHOTO / HAIDAR MOHAMMED ALI)
Iraqi supporters of the Sadrist movement hold national flags and shout slogans during a demonstration to press for reforms on April 26, 2016, at Baghdad's Tahrir Square. (AFP PHOTO / HAIDAR MOHAMMED ALI)

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AFP) — Iraqi lawmakers approved five of the prime minister’s candidates for a new cabinet on Tuesday after weeks of delays and chaos at parliament, as thousands of people demonstrated for reforms.

But some MPs, who were barred from attending after chanting for the parliament speaker’s removal and disrupting an earlier session, said they would mount a legal challenge.

Iraq has been hit by weeks of political turmoil surrounding Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s efforts to replace the cabinet of party-affiliated ministers with a government of technocrats.

The crisis comes as Iraqi forces battle to regain more ground from the Islamic State group, and both the United Nations and Washington have warned that it could undermine the fight against the jihadists.

Iraq has also been hit hard by the plummeting price of oil, revenues from which account for the vast majority of government funds.

The proposed cabinet changes have been opposed by powerful political parties that rely on control of ministries for patronage and funds, and parliament has repeatedly failed to vote on a new cabinet list.

Lawmakers approved Abadi’s candidates for the ministries of electricity, health, higher education, labour and water resources, MP Sarwa Abdulwahid and two parliamentary officials told AFP.

But they rejected some of Abadi’s nominees, and the premier will present additional candidates on Saturday, the sources said.

Earlier in the day, some MPs prevented Abadi from speaking at parliament and threw water bottles in his direction, lawmakers and a parliamentary official who was present at the session said.

Some lawmakers also chanted against parliament speaker Salim al-Juburi, terming him “illegitimate” and saying: “Salim! Out, out!”

The protesting lawmakers were then barred from attending the second session at which the partial cabinet was approved, vowing to file a court case over the issue.

Parliament has repeatedly been hit by chaos in recent weeks, with MPs holding an overnight sit-in at parliament, brawling in the chamber and seeking to sack Juburi, electing an interim replacement who has chaired his own rival sessions.

Abadi called a week ago for parliament to put aside its differences and do its job, but the antics in the legislature have continued.

As the latest political turmoil played out in parliament, thousands of protesters demonstrated for reforms nearby, answering a call from powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to do so.

The demonstrators, many carrying Iraqi flags, marched from Tahrir Square in central Baghdad to an entrance to the heavily fortified Green Zone where the government is headquartered, chanting that politicians “are all thieves.”

The government “did not bring the country and Iraqis anything but poverty and killing,” said demonstrator Abu Ali al-Zaidi, who travelled from Maysan province in the south for the protest.

“The political quotas and the parties that control everything are the reason for the failure of the government,” said Abu Mohammed al-Sudani, a protester from Baghdad who carried an Iraqi flag.

Key government posts have for years been shared out based on political and sectarian quotas, a practice demonstrators want to end.

Ali al-Bahadli, a cleric from the Sadr Movement who was taking part in the demonstration, said: “We want the ministers to be independent, outside the control of the political parties and parliament.”

Sadr, the scion of a powerful clerical family who in earlier years raised a rebellion against US-led forces and commanded a feared militia, had called for a mass demonstration in Baghdad on Tuesday to pressure the government to carry out reforms.

He organized a two-week sit-in at entrances to the Green Zone last month, calling it off only after Abadi presented a list of cabinet nominees.

Abadi called in February for “fundamental” change to the cabinet so that it includes “professional and technocratic figures and academics.”

That kicked off the latest chapter in a months-long saga of Abadi proposing various reforms that parties and politicians with interests in the existing system have sought to delay or undermine.

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