October 28, 2015 / 2:57 PM / 2 years ago

Iraq's coalition members press PM to consult before ordering reforms

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi addresses attendees during the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. Headquarters in New York, September 30, 2015. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Members of Iraq’s ruling coalition will press Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in a meeting on Wednesday night to consult more widely before ordering reforms, parliamentarians said, the clearest sign of growing discontent with his leadership style.

The same issue was raised in a letter to Abadi from about 60 members of the governing State of Law coalition that was delivered to him on Tuesday night, the MPs told Reuters.

In office since September 2014, Abadi has sought to transform a political system that critics say encouraged corruption, incompetence and Islamist insurgency, efforts that have met with resistance from some politicians.

“The State of Law will hold an important meeting this evening with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to discuss some issues relating to the government reforms and the necessity to have a prior coordination,” said an MP.

Many of the people who will attend the talks and signed the letter are supporters of former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was criticized for perceived authoritarianism and was replaced by Abadi.

Abadi announced his reform campaign after protests erupted in August over graft and poor water and electricity services in Iraq, a major OPEC oil producer.

Under his sweeping reforms, also intended to challenge a system blamed for undermining government forces in the battle against Islamic State insurgents, the three positions of vice president and three deputy prime ministers will be scrapped.

Those offices had become vehicles for patronage for some of the most powerful people in Iraq.

Some politicians say the measures are unconstitutional and overreach the powers of Abadi, who was emboldened by protesters who backed his reforms.

“Recent unilateral reform decisions created disagreements with the way Abadi is tackling the reforms issue and pushed around 60 members of the State of Law to send a message to Abadi urging him to include State of law in the discussions,” said another MP.

Several MPs said Abadi’s decision this month to cut the salaries of government employees, prompted by a decline in revenues caused by a fall in oil prices, encouraged coalition members to prod Abadi for greater consultations.

“People are suffering and cutting salaries at this time could cause domestic turbulence. When it comes to hard decisions, everybody should be included in the discussions,” another MP said.

Small protests over the cuts have been staged in several Iraqi cities.

While powerful Shi‘ite Muslim militias have complained about the reforms, resistance from the ruling coalition could be more problematic for Abadi, a Shi‘ite, as he tries to push through his agenda.

TENSIONS AS IRAQ FACES ISLAMIC STATE THREAT

Splits within the governing alliance could undermine efforts to form a united front in the war against Islamic State militants, who control about one third of Iraq.

When he first came to power, Abadi was seen as a consensus builder who could heal sectarian divisions among Shi‘ites, Sunni Muslims and non-Arab Kurds that deepened under Maliki’s rule.

“People are not that happy about him (Abadi). There are grumblings within his own party, with his partners… the Sunnis, even the Kurds have complaints,” said a senior Iraqi official, who asked to remain anonymous.

Saad Hadithi, Abadi’s spokesman, said there were no indications that the ruling bloc would try and withdraw support for him in parliament. “There are (only) personal positions held by some State of Law members who have spoken about this (wanting more consultation),” he said.

The reforms are the biggest undertaking yet by Abadi to strengthen his own hand in a country where Iranian-backed Shi‘ite paramilitary forces have wide sway.

Under the system put in place during the 2003-2011 U.S. occupation and designed to encourage an inclusive government, top positions were apportioned among the three main ethnic and sectarian groups: Shi‘ites, Sunnis and Kurds.

But Iraqi reformers have long argued that this put too much power in the hands of ethno-sectarian party bosses, who occupy Baghdad offices, cruise its streets in armed convoys and staff their fiefs with loyalists.

Iraq’s most influential Shi‘ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has endorsed the reforms and called on Abadi to “strike with an iron fist” against corruption.

Additional reporting by Stephen Kalin; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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