Iraqi PM seeks parliament approval for new Cabinet

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s prime minister on Thursday proposed a Cabinet makeover amid mounting pressure for political reform in the country, including weekly demonstrations by supporters of a radical Shiite cleric who have staged a sit-in outside government headquarters in Baghdad.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi also told lawmakers that he 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 would not replace the current defense and interior ministers because of the tense security situation in Iraq.

The incumbents will retain those strategic posts, he said, “given the current hard situation … and will be replaced later.” Al-Abadi said all 16 new names were selected by a special committee and not by the political parties.

It is still unclear if lawmakers will endorse the new Cabinet since several parliamentarians from across Iraq’s political spectrum have threatened to pull out of Thursday’s scheduled session if their demands are not met. Lawmakers now have 10 days to discuss the names before the vote.

Sunni politicians have demanded a complete Cabinet reshuffle, Shiite lawmakers are divided in their stance on the new government while Kurdish politicians have insisted that 20 percent of ministers in the new Cabinet must be Kurdish.

Government spokesman, Saad al-Hadithi, said all the names proposed by al-Abadi are new people.

Thousands of followers of the influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have continued their sit-in outside the Iraqi capital’s heavily fortified Green Zone, calling 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.

In 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, Kurdish Peshmerga forces, Shiite militias and pro-government Sunni fighters, to win back territory from the extremist group.