March 29, 2016 / 5:57 PM / a year ago

Iraqi PM asks parliament to clarify stance on corruption-fighting cabinet

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi arrives to attend a joint news conference with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi at the end of a meeting at Chigi Palace in Rome, Italy in this February 10, 2016 file photo.Tony Gentile

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi asked parliament on Tuesday to give him clear guidance on whether he should appoint party politicians or independent technocrats to a new cabinet aimed at fighting corruption.

Abadi was responding in a speech broadcast on state television to a deadline set by parliament on Monday to come up with a new lineup by Thursday.

"The council of representatives should clarify its position. Does it want ministers from the political blocs or technocrat ministers from outside the blocs and quotas?" he said.

Powerful Shi'ite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr responded swiftly, threatening Abadi with a no-confidence vote if he did not present the promised cabinet lineup by Thursday.

Sadr on Sunday launched a personal sit-in inside Baghdad's fortified Green Zone that houses embassies and government offices, escalating pressure on Abadi to deliver on his plan. Sadr's supporters are holding a sit-in just outside the district's gates.

In his speech, Abadi indirectly called on Sadr to end the protests, which he said were burdening the security forces as they fight Islamic State, the ultra-hardline Sunni group that controls considerable territory in northern and western Iraq.

"Reforms should not be allowed to impact the military and security situation," he said.

Abadi said more than six weeks ago that he would replace ministers with technocrats unaffiliated with political parties.

But other politicians, including some within his own Shi'ite Dawa party, have pushed back against such a reshuffle, fearing it could weaken the political patronage networks that have sustained their wealth and influence for more than a decade.

"The parliament has given you until Thursday and you have to abide by this date, otherwise ... we may get to the point where we withdraw confidence," Sadr said through his aide, Sheikh Ali Smeisim, addressing Abadi in a speech on local television.

Yet Ahrar, Sadr's bloc, accounts for only 34 of parliament's 328 members and may not be able to vote down Abadi if other political parties decide otherwise.

Iraq, a major OPEC producer that relies on oil exports for most of its revenue, has been plagued by corruption and mismanagement for years, ranking 161 out of 168 on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index in 2015.

Graft continues to eat away at Baghdad's resources as it struggles with high spending due to the costs of the war against Islamic State.

Reporting by Stephen Kalin and Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Mark Trevelyan/Mark Heinrich

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