Baghdad: Iraq braced for renewed tension as Prime Minsiter Haider Al Abadi faces a looming deadline on Thursday to fully reshuffle the cabinet.
On Tuesday, Al Abadi desperately tried to steer his country out of political turmoil, partially reshuffling his cabinet amid stepped-up pressure as thousands of protesters threatened to storm parliament.
The demonstrators, answering a call from outspoken Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, had gathered at the gates of Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, where parliament is located, demanding a new government. Women and children in the crowd were sent home as organisers said they would break through its perimeter if reforms were not enacted.
The political unrest has brought a new level of instability to a country that is facing multiple crises, including the fight against the Daesh militant group and the struggling economy. The United Nations has warned that the upheaval would further embolden the militants.
Al Abadi has been trying to replace his ministers to appease the street, but he has been hampered for more than a month by chaos in parliament, where sessions have broken down into arguments and scuffles before voting can take place.
Tuesday was no different, as a group of rebel lawmakers who claim to have voted out the speaker in a session earlier this month that others deemed illegal protested his presiding over the proceedings.
“Void, void!” they shouted as they surrounded Salim Al Jabouri during the session, banging on desks and scuffling with other lawmakers.
The session nearly erupted into a fist fight and was broadcast live on television as Al Jabouri brought with him a large security detail.
The prime minister, who had come to present his proposed list for the cabinet reshuffle, left the session during the chaos. Some members of parliament said water bottles were thrown at him before he exited.
As the protesters thronged outside parliament, journalists were told to leave for security reasons and were bused out.
Lawmakers then proceeded to hold another session in a separate room. Rebel lawmakers who had disrupted the earlier session — some of whom are affiliated with former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, who has been accused of working against his successor — claim they were not allowed in.
“They locked the doors and didn’t allow us to enter,” Haitham Al Jabouri said in a video address filmed on a cell phone and posted online. “They have a small army outside the room, and this small army didn’t allow us to reach this door.”
They claimed the session, in which the remaining lawmakers voted to replace five ministers, was illegal.
But the move appeared to give Al Abadi a temporary reprieve.
Kadhim Al Issawi, a military commander for Sadr’s Peace Brigades militia, addressed the crowd outside parliament and called the partial reshuffle a positive “first step”.
“You have started this change,” he said. “It’s only a partial change. It doesn’t satisfy us. But we accept it as a first step.”
Al Abadi is performing a precarious balancing act: Attempting to clamp down on corruption in response to the struggling economy and the demonstrations risks the wrath of powerful political players with vested interests. Meanwhile, ordinary Iraqis have protested his attempts to trim public workers’ salaries to cut a bloated wage bill.
“We are here to protest against those who stole our rights and our money,” said one protester outside parliament who was interviewed on Iraqi television. “We will get them out of the Green Zone by force.”