Thousands of Iraqis answer Sadr's call to protest

AFP , Tuesday 26 Apr 2016

Moqtada al-Sadr
Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr (AFP)

Thousands of supporters of powerful Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr answered his call to demonstrate in Baghdad on Tuesday to pressure the Iraqi government to move forward with stalled reforms.

Iraq has been hit by weeks of political turmoil surrounding Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's efforts to replace the cabinet of party-affiliated ministers with a government of technocrats.

The proposed changes have been opposed by powerful political parties that rely on control of ministries for patronage and funds, and parliament has repeatedly failed to vote on a new cabinet list.

The demonstrators, many of them carrying Iraqi flags, marched from Tahrir Square in central Baghdad to an entrance to the heavily-fortified Green Zone, where the government is headquartered, chanting that politicians "are all thieves."

"Our participation in the demonstration aims to reject this government for being sectarian," protester Abu Ali al-Zaidi said.

Key government posts have for years been shared out based on political and sectarian quotas, a practice demonstrators have called to end.

The government "did not bring the country and Iraqis anything but poverty and killing," said Zaidi, who travelled from Maysan province in southern Iraq to take part in the protest.

"All Iraqis must protest to reject this government, which failed in all fields," said Abu Mohammed al-Sudani, a demonstrator from Baghdad.

"The political quotas and the parties that control everything are the reason for the failure of the government," said Sudani, who carried an Iraqi flag.

Sadr, the scion of a powerful clerical family who in earlier years raised a rebellion against US-led forces and commanded a feared militia, called for a mass demonstration in Baghdad on Tuesday to pressure the government to carry out reforms.

The protest came on the same day that parliament speaker Salim al-Juburi was seeking to hold a session to vote on a new cabinet.

Parliament has been paralysed for weeks by the dispute over the cabinet, with MPs holding a sit-in, brawling in the chamber, seeking to sack the speaker and repeatedly failing to move forward on the issue of new ministers.

Abadi called a week ago for parliament to put aside its differences and do its job, saying he hoped for a vote on a new cabinet within days -- something that has yet to take place.

Abadi called in February for "fundamental" change to the cabinet so that it includes "professional and technocratic figures and academics".

That kicked off the latest chapter in a months-long saga of Abadi proposing various reforms that parties and politicians with interests in the existing system have sought to delay or undermine.

The political crisis comes as Iraqi forces battle to regain more ground from the Islamic State group, and both the United Nations and Washington have warned that it could undermine the fight against the jihadists.

Iraq has also been hit hard by the plummeting price of oil, revenues from which account for the vast majority of government funds.

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