Iraqi parliament approves partial Cabinet reshuffle
BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraq's parliament approved a partial Cabinet reshuffle proposed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Tuesday, bowing to mounting public pressure for reform, including mass protests led by an influential Shiite cleric.
Thousands of followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr had earlier massed outside the capital's heavily fortified Green Zone, calling for political reform and an end to corruption.
The protesters back al-Abadi's planned reshuffle, which would hand key portfolios to independent technocrats in a bid to root out patronage and corruption that have hindered the provision of public services since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Last month, al-Abadi proposed reducing the number of Cabinet ministers to 16, from the previous 21-member government. He submitted the names of independent technocrats for 14 ministerial positions, but said he would hold off on replacing the defense and interior ministers because of the tense security situation.
His plans have faced opposition from Iraq's entrenched political blocs as well as dozens of lawmakers who have demanded the resignation of al-Abadi and other top officials, and who interrupted the parliamentary session earlier Tuesday.
Parliament spokesman Emad al-Khafaji told The Associated Press that lawmakers approved nominees for six ministries: health, labor and social affairs; water resources; electricity; higher education and culture. Al-Khafaji added that al-Abadi has until Thursday to submit other names.
It is unclear how many members the new Cabinet will have.
The protests by al-Sadr's supporters have paralyzed much of the capital. The political crisis has hindered the government's efforts to address a worsening financial crisis resulting from low oil prices and combat the Islamic State group, which still controls much of northern and western Iraq.
The protesters, who have been holding a sit-in in Baghdad's central Tahrir Square, crossed bridges Tuesday to mass in front of the Green Zone, where parliament, government offices and many foreign embassies are located. The heavily-guarded area is surrounded by blast walls and razor-wire.
Earlier on Tuesday, security forces blocked off all the roads leading to Tahrir Square with razor wire and concrete blocks, snarling traffic in much of Baghdad.
The protesting lawmakers, many of whom are allied with former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, have demanded the ouster of his successor, al-Abadi, as well as Parliament Speaker Salim al-Jabouri and President Fuad Masum.
They have staged sit-ins over the past week, and recently chose a new speaker, Adnan al-Janabi. But that move was rejected by the other camp, which argued the lawmakers did not have a quorum.
Al-Jabouri, who is backed by the majority, achieved the needed quorum for Tuesday's session. But he was forced to call a break for dialogue after dozens of protesting lawmakers began pounding their fists on tables, calling for his resignation.
The session resumed hours later behind closed doors in another hall.
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 entrenched interests.