By Saif Hameed
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of people rallied on Friday in Baghdad, heeding a call from Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to put pressure on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to proceed with his plan to form a cabinet of independent, professional ministers.
As the demonstrators were gathering in central Baghdad's Tahrir (Liberation) Square, state TV said Abadi had asked political blocs in parliament and "influential social figures" to nominate technocrats as ministerial candidates.Several demonstrators were disappointed with the announcement, saying Abadi was caving in to the politicians by asking them to put forward their proposed names.
"I don't think Abadi can do the reforms he promised," said Ammar Salman, a 37-year-old taxi driver, carrying the red, white and black Iraqi flag. "The political blocs won't let him."
Corruption is eating away at Baghdad's resources even as it struggles with falling revenue due to rock-bottom oil prices and high spending due to the costs of the war on Islamic State.A year and a half into his four-year term, Abadi said last month that he wanted to replace his ministers with technocrats to challenge the system of patronage that encourages graft by distributing posts along political, ethnic and sectarian lines.
"Your credit is about to finish," said a banner carried by demonstrators in Tahrir Square, apparently addressing the nation's politicians in general without naming anyone.
The banner was put on a frame in the form of gallows with ropes tied as hanging nooses dangling underneath.
The number of those who rallied at Sadr's call this week was far less than last Friday when an estimated 200,000 people gathered outside the Green Zone, a heavily fortified district that houses government ministries and embassies.
It is the third consecutive Friday that Sadr's followers have rallied in Baghdad to demand the replacement of Abadi's ministers by technocrats not affiliated with political parties.
The cleric on Wednesday said Abadi "should be given a chance to proceed with his reforms", cautioning the prime minister at the same time against yielding to pressure and appointing ministers vetted by the political parties.
"If we feel that the reforms are real and not just media noise, there will be more measures in support" of Abadi, Sadr said.
Four weeks ago Sadr, heir to a Shi'ite clerical dynasty persecuted under Saddam Hussein, gave Abadi 45 days to deliver on his pledged change or face a no-confidence vote in parliament.
The demonstration he addressed on the previous Friday was held at an entrance to the Green Zone, raising concern of violence with security forces.
Sadr said he changed the location to Tahrir Square as a goodwill gesture to Abadi. A bridge over the Tigris river separates the square from the Green Zone.
(Reporting by Saif Hameed. Writing by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Dominic Evans)