By Ahmed Rasheed and Stephen Kalin
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's political blocs will likely resist Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's attempts to replace politically appointed ministers with technocrats, a possible last-ditch effort to reform the government that could end up costing the premier his position.
Abadi, 18 months into his four-year term, said on Tuesday he wanted to reshuffle his cabinet, which was formed in 2014 and which distributed posts based loosely on political blocs' representation in parliament.
He offered few details but appealed for cooperation from parliament, which must approve ministerial changes and has blocked earlier reform efforts.
Politicians, diplomats and analysts doubt he has enough backing to overhaul Iraq's governing system, which distributes positions along ethnic and sectarian lines, creating powerful patronage networks.
They said that Abadi may have set himself up for defeat and discussions have begun, mostly in private, about his possible replacement.
"He is at the mercy of the blocs now. Unless they agree, he can't do anything," said Sami Askari, a senior lawmaker from Abadi's State of Law coalition.
He said the most Abadi could hope for was "cosmetic changes" by replacing a few ministers with candidates from the same blocs, which would only add to his growing weakness.
Politicians and diplomats said there could be moves at the ministries of finance, foreign affairs, transport, water and industry.
Abadi's spokesman Saad al-Hadithi declined to comment on which ministers might be replaced but said Tuesday's announcement was "the beginning of a dialogue to know the seriousness of political blocs toward his initiative".
Sunni lawmaker Hamid al-Mutlaq told Reuters he was skeptical of the premier's intentions but saw no other option. "If Abadi fails to win the blocs' full support this time around, the mismanagement of the state would push Iraq into the abyss," he said.
SISTANI LOSES PATIENCE
Abadi did not consult widely enough with political leaders before revealing his plan to reshuffle the cabinet, lawmakers and diplomats said, echoing a criticism of his earlier efforts to shake up Iraqi politics.
"This announcement seems to have more buy-in than previous reform announcements but still not the buy-in of the full political spectrum," said a diplomat in Baghdad.
Emboldened last summer by popular protests and a call for action by top Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Abadi launched reforms in August aimed at dismantling a system of quotas and patronage that was put in place after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
His biggest challenges are reforming Iraq's corrupt military, which largely collapsed in the face of Islamic State advances in 2014, and streamlining a government seen as inept amid an economic crisis triggered by low oil prices.
But Abadi's efforts became bogged down by legal challenges and opposition from entrenched interests, amid signs that Sistani was losing patience with the prime minister.
Last week Sistani, whose opinion carries weight with millions of followers, suspended weekly sermons about political affairs in apparent frustration with Abadi.
"In the early weeks when the Marjaiya (religious leadership) and the public wanted this, he could have put the blocs in the corner," said Askari. "No one dared say no to reform. But now they are willing to say no because the Marjaiya is fed up."
The diplomat questioned the timing of Abadi's announcement, on the eve of a trip to Europe. "He's given his opponents a week to strategise. They may decide it's in their best interest to keep things how they are and replace him instead."
(Editing by Dominic Evans)