BAGHDAD, (AP) -Radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his followers to withdraw from Iraq’s coalition government on Monday, the head of his parliamentary bloc said.
Al-Sadr’s ministers will “withdraw immediately from the Iraqi government and give the six Cabinet seats to the government, with the hope that they will be given to independents who represent the will of the people,” said Nassar al-Rubaie, head of al-Sadr’s bloc, reading a statement from the cleric.
The Cabinet withdrawal, while unlikely to topple Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, would deal a significant blow to the U.S.-backed leader, who also relied on support from the Sadrists to gain office.
Al-Sadr, who wields tremendous power among Iraq’s majority Shiites, has been upset about recent arrests of his Mahdi Army fighters in the U.S.-led Baghdad security crackdown. He and his followers have also criticized al-Maliki for failing to back calls for a timetable for U.S. troops to leave the country.
One week ago, al-Sadr mobilized tens of thousands of Iraqis for a peaceful demonstration in two Shiite holy cities, on the fourth anniversary of Baghdad’s fall. At the rally, many participants called for such a timetable.
Al-Rubaie, speaking to reporters in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, said the withdrawal was ordered because the prime minister did not respond demands made at the demonstration.
The Sadrists hold six positions in the 37-member Cabinet, and 30 seats in the 275-member parliament. Monday’s move would affect only the Cabinet members.
“We will have a major role in working on a timetable in parliament. This will be our message to the government,” al-Rubaie said. “Setting a timetable for the withdrawal will be done in parliament.”
Lawmakers said the move will hurt al-Maliki.
“The withdrawal will affect the performance of the government, and will weaken it,” said Abdul-Karim al-Ouneizi, a Shiite legislator from the Dawa Party-Iraq Organization. Al-Ouneizi is from a different branch of the party al-Maliki heads.
All six ministers were expected to hand in resignation letters later Monday.
“I ask God to provide the Iraqi people with an independent government, far from (U.S.) occupation, that does all it can to serve the people,” the statement said.
Elsewhere Monday, thousands of Iraqis upset about poor city services marched peacefully through the streets of Basra in southern Iraq, demanding the provincial governor’s resignation despite calls by top officials to call off the protest.
Some 3,000 demonstrators gathered near the Basra mosque and marched a few hundred yards to the governor’s office, which was surrounded by Iraqi soldiers and police. A small number of demonstrators carried light weapons.
“We call for the resignation of the Basra governor,” read one banner carried by demonstrators. “We call for the government to remove the governor,” read another. Others waved Iraqi flags and chanted “No, no to the governor!”
Protesters dispersed peacefully after a few hours, and called for a three-day sit-in in front of the governor’s office starting Tuesday. If their demands are not met within three days, the sit-in could be extended, they said.
Residents have complained of inadequate electricity, garbage disposal and water supplies in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city about 340 miles southeast of Baghdad.
Basra’s services, however, are considered better than several other Iraqi cities. Residents get electricity for about 20 hours a day, and water is available most of the time. But some neighborhoods have no garbage collection, and in some areas the sewage system is so old it seeps into the streets.