March 11, 2016 / 1:26 PM / 4 years ago

Iraq's Abadi asks political blocs to nominate technocrats for cabinet

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi asked political blocs in parliament and “influential social figures” to nominate technocrats as candidates for ministerial positions in a new cabinet he plans to form, state TV reported on Friday.

Supporters of prominent Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr shout slogans during a protest against government corruption at Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Iraq March 11, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Saad

A year and a half into his four-year term, Abadi is trying to challenge a system of patronage which has become entrenched in Iraq over the last decade, paralysing politics and allowing corruption to flourish.

But he faces pressure from two sides as some of the country’s powerful political factions resist any reduction of their influence while others, notably the prominent Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, threaten to bring down his government unless he presses ahead faster.

Al-Iraqia news channel, which announced Abadi’s move on Friday, said an independent committee of experts will review the names put forward and then select a list of names from those candidates for him to choose his ministers.

Abadi said last month that he wanted to replace his ministers with technocrats to tackle the system of patronage that encourages graft by distributing government jobs and contracts along political, ethnic and sectarian lines. The political system adopted after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 was initially meant to allow the nation’s Sunni Arab, Kurdish and other minorities to have ministers and take part in the government alongside parties that represent the Shi’ite majority, to which Abadi belongs.

Corruption is eating away at Baghdad’s resources even as it struggles with falling revenue due to rock-bottom oil prices and high spending due to the costs of the war against Islamic State.

In a speech on Wednesday, Abadi said that he would announce ministerial changes soon and that the cabinet would be made of “competent professionals” who reflect the nation’s ethnic and sectarian makeup.

Abadi’s media office on Thursday said the prime minister had sent a document to political parties that contains the criteria along which he will be choosing his ministers.

Sadr urged Abadi to form a cabinet where the political parties are not represented.

“I want the prime minister to continue his reform plan with no fear of political pressure,” Sadr said in a pre-recorded speech aired on screens in Baghdad’s central Tahrir Square, where tens of thousands of his supporters rallied on Friday.

It was not immediately clear whether Sadr had recorded his speech before or after the state television announcement on Abadi’s call.

Some Sadr supporters at the demonstration were sceptical of the prime minister’s ability to deliver on his reform pledge. “I don’t think Abadi can do the reforms he promised,” said Ammar Salman, a 37-year-old taxi driver, carrying the red, white and black Iraqi flag. “The political blocs won’t let him.”

The cleric’s supporters have held regular demonstrations demanding reforms to tackle corruption. Sadr, heir to a Shi’ite clerical dynasty persecuted under Saddam Hussein, said on Feb. 12 that Abadi had 45 days to deliver on his pledge of a technocrat cabinet or face a no-confidence vote in parliament.

However, the Sadrist bloc, called al-Ahrar, accounts for only 34 of parliament’s 328 members and he may not be able to vote down Abadi should the other political parties approve a new cabinet.

Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli and Saif Hameed.; Editing by Dominic Evans

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