Tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of central Baghdad on Tuesday calling for a parliamentary vote on a cabinet reshuffle aimed at fighting corruption, amid divisions between lawmakers that have brought government to a standstill.
Powerful Shi’ite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr has asked his supporters to march towards the heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses parliament and foreign embassies. His call is intended to “frighten” MPs from the main political parties, which rely on control of ministries for patronage and funds, and “compel” them to agree to the prime minister’s reforms.
The generally peaceful gathering was the biggest in the capital in weeks, and protesters filled a main road stretching nearly two km (1.3 miles) from Tahrir Square to the Green Zone, Reuters reported.
Sadr has pressured Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to follow through on months-old reform proposals, and press ahead with his plan to replace ministers appointed on the basis of political affiliation with technocrats.
Powerful parties in parliament have so far refused to approve the reshuffle.
Systemic political patronage has aided corruption in Iraq, depleting the government’s resources as it struggles to cope with declining oil revenue and the cost of the war against the jihadist group ISIS.
Abadi, who under reforms of his own announced in February is pushing to replace party-affiliated ministers with technocrats, has warned that the political crisis could hamper the war ISIS, which seizes swathes of territory in the north and west of the oil-rich country.
It was not clear if a parliament session called for by speaker Salim al-Jabouri would convene. Around 100 deputies who have been holding a sit-in in and around the main chamber for nearly two weeks and want to oust Jabouri were trying to block the meeting.
But Sadr’s bloc and the Kurdish alliance, which previously participated in the sit-in, proposed they would attend the session even if it had to be held in a separate hall.
“We are present today at parliament to attend a session whose main goal is the cabinet overhaul,” Dhiaa al-Asadi, who heads Sadr’s bloc in parliament, told reporters. “Salim al-Jabouri called for this session and he will head it. We will attend.”
The objecting lawmakers argue Jabouri’s session would be unconstitutional. In a largely contested vote earlier this month, they moved to sack him as part of demands to restructure a system that allocates positions based on ethnic and sectarian quotas, and have threatened to take the issue to court.
Demonstrations in recent weeks have forced some military forces to leave the front lines to secure the capital, according to security sources.
On Tuesday, protesters standing up to unusually hot weather waved Iraqi flags and chanted pro-Sadr slogans as they crossed a bridge over the Tigris River to reach the gates of the Green Zone.
“Our participation in the demonstration aims to reject this government for being sectarian,” protester Abu Ali al-Zaidi told the AFP news agency.
The government “did not bring the country and Iraqis anything but poverty and killing”, the taxi driver from the southern province of Maysan added.