BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq's prime minister proposed a new Cabinet lineup to the country's lawmakers on Thursday, after weeks of pressure from supporters of a radical Shiite cleric who have staged rallies in the Iraqi capital and a sit-in next to the government headquarters to demand reforms.
The political crisis has rocked Baghdad and put a significant burden on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, threatening to become a more destabilizing factor — at least in the eyes of the domestic audience — than the authorities' battle against the extremist Islamic State group.
Al-Abadi came before the parliament on Thursday to tell lawmakers that he has reduced the number of Cabinet ministers to 16, from the previous 21-member government. He submitted the names of nominees for 14 ministerial positions, but said he would not replace the current defense and interior ministers, "given the current hard situation."
The parliament now has 10 days to confirm al-Abadi's nominees — or potentially gridlock the process further.
Thursday's developments come against the backdrop of weeks of protests by thousands of followers of the influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. His supporters have continued their sit-in outside the Iraqi capital's heavily fortified Green Zone, following the cleric's calls for political reform and an end to corruption. On Sunday, al-Sadr ramped up the pressure on the government by himself launching a separate sit-in inside the Green Zone, which is home to key government offices and foreign embassies.
On Thursday, all roads leading to the Green Zone were closed and riot police and security forces were deployed around the area.
Shortly after the parliament session, al-Sadr called on his supporters to end their sit-in, but to continue "peaceful protests in all Iraqi provinces every Friday to put pressure on lawmakers to vote on the new Cabinet."
In a televised speech from his tent erected inside the Green Zone, al-Sadr warned that if the parliament failed to vote, he would pull out his ministers from the Cabinet and call for vote of no confidence in al-Abadi's government.
Last August, al-Abadi proposed a sweeping reform package to combat corruption, cut government spending and merge ministries, but his efforts have been stymied by sectarian tensions and struggles to contain the Islamic State group.
Since IS swept across much of northern and western Iraq in the summer of 2014, Iraqi authorities have waged a full-scale war, aided by U.S. airstrikes, the Kurdish peshmerga forces, Shiite militias and pro-government Sunni fighters, to win back territory from the extremist group.
Al-Sadr first began his public calls for reform in early February as pressure was building on al-Abadi. The Shiite cleric called for corrupt politicians to be held accountable and demanded a government made up of more technocrats rather than political party appointees.
When al-Sadr's supporters first pushed past security forces earlier this month to reach the Green Zone gates, raising the possibility of more violent confrontations, al-Abadi pulled some of Iraq's elite counterterrorism forces back from the fight against IS in the western Anbar province to help secure the capital. The move delayed an offensive on the town of Hit, controlled by IS, for nearly two weeks.
"It's a big mess," said Assad al-Muttalabi, an Iraqi lawmaker and close ally of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "It's a very sensitive time, we are in an open war with Daesh and our finances are not in very good shape." Daesh is the Arabic language acronym for IS.
Iraq is also grappling with an economic crisis sparked by plunging global oil prices. Its budget is almost entirely dependent on oil revenues and despite exports being at record highs, the country is running a multibillion dollar a month deficit.
This has exacerbated Iraqis' long-standing frustrations with entrenched corruption and mismanagement that many blame for squandering fortunes while oil prices were high, leaving the country with crumbling infrastructure and poor to non-existent government services.
"Ever since 2003, the government has given us nothing," said Haydar Ahmad, an al-Sadr supporter from east Baghdad who was camped out at the sit-in outside the Green Zone.
The 24-year-old dropped out of Arabic language studies at university this year to work at a supermarket to help support his family. "Al-Sadr is different from the other Iraqi leaders, he's with the people," he said.
Ahmed Ali, an Iraq analyst and senior fellow at the Institute of Regional and International Studies at the American University of Iraq, says the political crisis is likely to translate into a power struggle among government-sanctioned Shiite militia groups that have grown more powerful than Iraq's security forces in the fight against IS.
Al-Sadr's militia, which in the past often battled U.S. troops in Iraq, has rebranded itself as Saraya al-Salam and is among the dominant militias.
"The big shift now is that the battle among the Iraqi Shiite groups is not just about military success anymore, it's about political success," Ali said.
The Iraqi army has won a string of victories against the Islamic State group over the past year and is believed to have taken back more than 40 percent of IS-held territory, according to the U.S.-led coalition.
However, IS remains in control of large swaths of territory in Iraq's north and west, as well as the country's second largest city of Mosul.