x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Iraq PM Maliki tells his cabinet to shape up or face 'changes'

After 100 days an assessment of the work of the government and ministries will be carried out 'to find out the level of their individual success or failure in performing their jobs,' as thousands take to the streets to demonstrate against poor public services, rampant corruption and high unemployment.

BAGHDAD // Iraq's prime minister warned his cabinet yesterday to shape up within 100 days or face "changes", as protest organisers called for fresh rallies and religious leaders demanded reforms.

Nuri al Maliki's remarks came after a third provincial governor stepped down following a series of demonstrations across the country, the biggest of which were on Friday when thousands took to the streets to rail against poor public services, rampant corruption and high unemployment.

A statement from his office said: "Mr al Maliki specified a 100-day period after which an assessment of the work of the government and ministries will be carried out to find out the level of their individual success or failure in performing their jobs," specifying that the 100-day period began yesterday.

"Changes will be made based on the assessments."

The statement also specified new measures would be taken to combat corruption, such as forcing ministries to advertise all job openings, to fight cronyism, with Mr al Maliki ordering ministers to root out graft in their departments before Iraq's anti-corruption watchdog got involved.

His comments during a cabinet meeting called to discuss the rallies came as protest organisers called on Facebook for new demonstrations billed as a "Day of Regret" on Friday to mark a year since parliamentary elections.

It took politicians more than nine months to form a government after those polls, and even now, several key positions, such as the ministers of interior, defence and planning, remain unfilled.

Yesterday, the governor of Babil province, south of Baghdad, stepped down, the third resignation this month, all from members of Mr al Maliki's State of Law coalition.

"I have decided to resign because of weak public services and technical problems that have prevented us from completing projects like the construction of roads and bridges," said Salman al Zargani.

Basra's governor stepped down on Friday amid protests in the provincial capital, while Kut's leader resigned early this month.

A day earlier, the spiritual leader of Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority said the government needed to make progress on improving power supplies, providing food for the needy, creating jobs and combating corruption.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, who is based in the city of Najaf and rarely wades into politics, also called on Iraq's leaders to "cancel unacceptable benefits" given to current and former politicians, and said they must "not invent unnecessary government positions that cost Iraq money".

Friday's protests took place in at least 17 cities, bringing thousands of Iraqis onto the streets, with the biggest gathering in Baghdad where around 5,000 demonstrators rallied in Tahrir Square.

A total of 16 people were killed and more than 130 wounded in clashes that day, with Mr al Maliki promising yesterday that investigations would be launched. He vowed that those responsible, whether they be security forces or demonstrators, would be brought to justice.

Parliament speaker Osama al Nujaifi demanded a separate inquiry into "the repression of hundreds of demonstrators" and called for early provincial elections, barely two years after the current councils were voted in.

Mr al Nujaifi described "astonishing repression against the media in a country with the freedom of expression". Several journalists have alleged been beaten by security forces while covering the protests, with four reporters pledging to sue Mr al Maliki in his role as commander in chief of the armed forces.

"I think we need to hold new elections for the people to express themselves and choose those who can satisfy their demands," he said at a news conference.

In an attempt to head off the protests, Iraq earlier cut politicians' pay, increased food aid for the needy and delayed a planned law that would have raised import tariffs with knock-on effects on the price of basic goods.