BAGHDAD: The influential Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr wants to replace senior government staff with independent professionals in a bid to improve services and fight corruption, according to supporters.
However, a prominent Sadrist leader told Arab News on Monday that Al-Sadr has ruled out demonstrations to pressure Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi into accepting the changes.
Iraqi political factions are embroiled in a bitter struggle for control of thousands of top government jobs, including heads of independent security and inspecting bodies, deputy ministers, ambassadors, university heads, and military and security commanders.
Most of the positions have been run by proxy under the control of the Islamic Dawa Party, which has headed four out of the six governments formed since the 2003 US-led invasion.
Al-Sadr, who has millions of followers and controls the largest parliamentary bloc Sairoon, blames the Dawa party’s appointments for financial and administrative corruption along with a decline in basic daily services.
He believes that “replacing all those senior employees by independent professional technocrats will improve government performance,” the Sadrist leader said.
Al-Sadr also wants to “dismantle the mafia of financial and administrative corruption that controls the ministries and loots public money,” he said.
“We can say that Al-Sadr is leading a peaceful and slow coup to correct the government,” said the leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The government has been wrongly built and this must be corrected. We are working to achieve change by changing the government decision-makers.”
Under the 2019 general budget, Abdul Mahdi had to end the file of the special grades and the administration run by proxy by June 30.
However, negotiations on the sharing of positions between political factions and powerful parties, including Sairoon and the pro-Iranian parliamentary bloc of Al-Fatah, ended in deadlock.
The three presidencies — the president, speaker of the parliament and the prime minister — on Saturday agreed to extend the deadline until the end of October, political leaders told Arab News.
The Parliament on Sunday initiated voting to approve the extension which will allow senior officials who run their proxy sites to continue working until new staff are decided.
Abdul Mahdi and his government were the result of an agreement between the two largest parliamentary coalitions, Reform led by Al-Sadr and the pro-Iranian Construction led by Hadi Al-Amiri.
Lawmakers for both Al-Sadr and Al-Amiri have said repeatedly in recent months that they are working to dismantle what they called the “deep state,” formed by Nouri Al-Maliki, former Iraqi prime minister.
“All the key players inside Iraq are convinced the situation will not change unless the heart of the government is changed,” a key Sairoon negotiator told Arab News.
“The position of the minister is a political one, and the real power is in the hands of the deputies of ministers and general directors. If we change those, the performance of the government will change, and that is what Al-Sadr wants,” he added.
Demonstrators have taken to the streets in Iraq’s southern provinces over lack of basic services, including drinking water and electricity, and high unemployment.
While activists across the country have been counting on Al-Sadr’s support for the protests, Sadrist offices have not received any directives to join demonstrations in Basra, Nassiriyah and Diwaniyah.
“We have not received any instructions to participate in any demonstration,” Saad Al-Maliki, manager of the Sadr media office in Basra, said.
Protests backed by Al-Sadr have been an effective way of pressuring the government and key leaders since 2003, but often turn violent. At least 22 protesters and security staff were killed last summer in clashes outside government offices, including the Iranian consulate in Basra.
“If he (Abdul Mahdi) rejects Al-Sadr’s project, then the Parliament is there and demonstrations are there. The street is already boiling. It will revolt and the government will be overthrown in days,” the Sadrist leader said.