UPDATED: Iraq PM rolls out sweeping reforms in response to protests

AFP , Sunday 9 Aug 2015

Haider al-Abadi
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (Photo: Reuters)

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi proposed scrapping top government posts and privileges on Sunday in an ambitious reform drive sparked by swelling popular anger over corruption and poor governance.

The proposed reforms followed weeks of demonstrations and a call for tougher reform measures from Iraq's top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is revered by millions of Iraqis.

Amid a major heatwave that has seen temperatures top 50 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit), protesters have railed against the poor quality of services, especially power outages that leave Iraqis with only a few hours of government-supplied electricity per day.

But even with popular pressure and Sistani's backing, the entrenched nature of corruption in Iraq and the fact that parties across the political spectrum benefit from it will make any efforts to change the system extremely difficult.

One of the most drastic of the proposals outlined in an online statement by Abadi was the call for the elimination of the posts of vice president and deputy prime minister "immediately".

The cabinet approved the reform plan on Sunday, Abadi's office said, but changes such as abolishing the posts would apparently require the constitution to be amended, which would necessitate parliamentary action.

The three vice presidential posts, which come with more privileges than responsibilities, are held by former top officials -- Abadi's predecessor and main rival, Nuri al-Maliki, ex-parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi and former premier Iyad Allawi.

Maliki and Nujaifi said on Sunday that they supported the reform drive, indicating that the proposed changes may have been made as part of a deal that they endorsed.

"I renew my support for the reforms that are needed," said Maliki, while Nujaifi announced his "support for and welcome of the decisions".

Abadi also called for a major overhaul of the way senior officials are selected, saying that all "party and sectarian quotas" should be abolished, and the candidates chosen by a committee appointed by the premier.

No quotas are enshrined in the constitution but the patronage system that prevails in Iraq grants many government jobs according to sect and party affiliation rather than merit.

Abadi also said there should be a "comprehensive and immediate reduction" in the number of guards for officials.

This has long been a problem, with some officials having massive personal protection units, and others hiring less than the allotted number and pocketing the remainder of the allowance.

And he called for an end to "special provisions" for senior officials, both current and retired.

He did not specify what these were, but large salaries, government-provided vehicles and generous retirement benefits have all long been bones of contention between the authorities and average Iraqis.

Old and current graft cases should also be reopened under the supervision of a high commission for fighting corruption, Abadi said.

Sistani called Friday for Abadi to take "drastic measures" against corruption, saying that the "minor steps" he had announced were not enough.

"He must be more daring and courageous in his reforms," Ahmed al-Safi, a representative of the reclusive Sistani, said in a sermon delivered in the shrine city of Karbala.

But Abadi's efforts face major challenges.

"The entire system of government is rotten. The constitution is decrepit, the legal framework is woefully inadequate and the political class is utterly corrupt and incompetent," said Zaid al-Ali, author of "The Struggle For Iraq's Future".

"All political parties that are part of government profit directly from the current system, which is why it has remained unchanged since 2005," said Ali, a constitutionalist.

The latest major protest was on Friday, with thousands in Baghdad and the Shiite south venting their anger at authorities.

Demonstrators have blamed the services crisis on corruption and incompetence across the political class.

But various parties and politicians have sought to align themselves with the protesters -- at least in their rhetoric -- to take advantage of the movement and mitigate the risk to themselves.

People have protested over services and corruption before but the demonstrations failed to bring about significant change.

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