August 29, 2015 / 1:02 PM / 4 years ago

Facing heat, Iraq's electricity minister passes parliament quizzing

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s parliament on Saturday expressed confidence in the answers of Electricity Minister Qassim al-Fahdawi following an interrogation about a persistent power crisis that has prompted widespread protests and a new push for reform.

Demonstrations in Baghdad and many southern cities, precipitated last month by anger at widespread electricity cuts amid a sweltering heatwave, have evolved in recent weeks to call for the trial of corrupt politicians and the shakeup of a system riddled with graft and incompetence.

The exoneration of Fahdawi, who took office a year ago, could stir anger among protesters who complain they have yet to see tangible results from reforms announced this month by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

Partly in response to the protests, Abadi has introduced measures to combat corruption and mismanagement including scrapping layers of senior government posts, cutting security details and other perks for officials, and encouraging corruption investigations.

Fahdawi has said he should not bear the blame for a system worn down by years of war and under-investment under previous ministers and hamstrung currently by state coffers suffering from low oil prices.

Electricity supplies collapsed in the chaos after the U.S. invasion in 2003 when power plants were looted or not properly maintained. Islamist insurgents have targeted transmission towers and other infrastructure in subsequent years, while the Baghdad government has been unable to keep up with demand.

Tens of thousands of protesters rallied on Friday to demand Abadi accelerate his reforms, put corrupt officials on trial and loosen the grip of powerful parties over the state. Thousands of security forces were deployed but the demonstrations remained mostly peaceful.

Security was tight ahead of the parliamentary session on Saturday at the fortified Green Zone, where parliament is located, despite a pledge by Abadi on Friday to ease access to the central district.

Lawmaker Ashwaq Al-Jaf said 153 out of 263 parliamentarians had voted in approval of Fahdawi’s responses, ending the interrogation.

Not everyone was convinced. Legislator Abbas al-Khuzai called Fahdawi’s answers “laughable”.

“He should have been sacked at least for not answering the demands of the protesters and to send a message to others that we are serious about the reforms,” he said.

Legislator Ahmed al-Badri warned the pressure from the streets could now shift from the minister to the lawmakers who voted in favour of his answers.

The closed parliamentary session was set to be broadcast in full on state television.

Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Dale Hudson

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