BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi won the support of his cabinet on Sunday to eliminate a layer of senior government positions, part of a push to reduce corruption and save money in the face of mounting unrest.
After weeks of protests demanding better government and a call by leading Shi‘ite Muslim cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for tougher action, Abadi proposed cancelling Iraq’s multiple vice president and deputy prime minister positions, currently shared out along sectarian lines.
Iraq has three vice presidents, two Shi‘ites and a Sunni, and three deputy prime ministers, a Shi‘ite, a Sunni and a Kurd. Critics say the set-up say hands high office to unqualified candidates and encourages corruption.
Mounting public anger at the state of politics, expressed in protests in Baghdad and several southern cities, risks hampering Abadi’s efforts to rally support for the fight to push Islamic State militants from territory in the north and west.
One of the vice presidents, Nuri al-Maliki, who stepped down as prime minister last August after eight years of what critics said was ethnically divisive rule, backed the proposal.
“I renew my position in support of reforms required by the political process and guided by the supreme religious authority (Sistani) to the prime minister,” tweeted Maliki, who remains a potent force in politics, with a network of loyal commanders in the armed forces and Shi‘ite militias.
Another vice president, Osama al-Nujaifi, also expressed support.
As well as removing the senior posts, Abadi called for an end to sectarian and party quotas for government positions, the reopening of corruption investigations and the reassignment of officials’ security details to the ministries of defense and interior. The proposals nees parliamentary approval.
Abadi, a moderate Shi‘ite Islamist who has sought reconciliation between Sunnis and Shi‘ites, has struggled to build broad political support for meaningful reform.
Political analyst Ahmed Younis said corruption, economic pressures and the battle against Islamic State had “pushed Abadi with the country to the edge of the cliff”.
“Sistani’s call for Abadi to take bold decisions was the perfect support at the perfect time. It gave Abadi leverage and granted him immunity against any possible opposition”, he said.
In his sermon on Friday, Sistani urged Abadi to “strike with an iron fist” against corruption and make appointments based on ability rather than party or sectarian affiliation.
The reclusive octogenarian enjoys almost mythological stature among millions of Shi‘ite followers and wields authority few Iraqi politicians would openly challenge.
“With the green light from (Sistani), Abadi is now stronger than ever and will push ahead with radical changes without any hesitation,” said parliamentary legal panel chief Mahmoud al-Hassan.
Additional reporting by Stephen Kalin in Beirut; Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Robin Pomeroy