Baghdad: Iraq's prime minister proposed a new Cabinet lineup to the country's lawmakers today, 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 today 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.
Today, 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.