Iraq’s cabinet has approved Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi’s proposal to overhaul the government bureaucracy, scrapping three vice presidential posts and the offices of three deputy prime ministers.
The cabinet backed the proposed reforms on Sunday, which still needs parliamentary approval.
The six posts under threat represented various political and sectarian blocs in the government.
The plan also effectively would push out of government former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, widely criticised for inflaming sectarian tensions and appointing loyal, less-qualified senior officers to Iraq’s military ahead of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group’s advance last year.
However, Maliki issued a short statement backing the proposed plan.
The proposal followed weeks of demonstrations, and a call for tougher reform measures from top Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is revered by millions of Iraqis.
Late on Sunday, hundreds of demonstrators gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, criticising MPs and other politicians and saying they supported Abbadi’s reforms, but that further steps were needed.
“The decisions are the first step of liberating Iraq from corruption,” demonstrator Samih Khalil told the AFP news agency.
But he and others also warned that if the government does not follow through, the protests will continue.
On Sunday evening, Kurdistan’s regional government welcomed the decision and vowed reforms, as long as the central government is “mindful of the participation of the Kurdistan Region”.
In a statement issued earlier on Sunday, Abbadi also promised to investigate corruption, reappoint all senior officials based on professional rather than sectarian standards, and reduce the number of security personnel protecting senior officials in order to cut down on waste.
Abbadi held a meeting on Friday evening with a number of experts and advisers to discuss the administrative and financial reforms in his new bid to tackle corruption in the country.
Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister Bahaa al-Araji resigned shortly after Abbadi’s proposal on Sunday, Iraq’s state news reported.
Anti-government demonstrations persisted in several cities such as Basra, Baghdad, Nasriyah, and Najaf in the past two weeks over poor living conditions, including electricity cuts and water quality.
Al Jazeera’s Mohammed Jamjoom, reporting from Baghdad, said Abbadi’s decision yesterday sent shockwaves throughout the Iraqi government establishment.
“It is not a surprise considering how much pressure the PM has been under from these mounting protests that have been growing in various cities throughout the country.
“Many activists have been calling on the government to end rampant corruption here in Iraq.
“All of the people we spoke to here say they want to see an end to rampant corruption, they want the return of basic services, they want electricity, they want to have air conditioning at a time when Iraq is experiencing a blazingly hot record heatwave and they want to have clean water,” Jamjoom added.
‘Big step towards tackling corruption’
Other points proposed by Abbadi include cancelling special privileges and expenses that were allocated to the three branches of the government, merging some ministries and slimming down others to improve services and cut down on expenses.
Mustafa Saadoun, one of the organisers of the recent protests in Baghdad and director of the Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights, told Al Jazeera: “If these decisions do go through they are certainly a new beginning for us, and a big step towards tackling and getting rid of corruption within the government.”
“For the past two weeks we have been protesting for change in the capital, and today we support the answer.”
Abbadi’s main rivals Maliki, ex-parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, and former Premier Iyad Allawi hold the three vice presidential posts.
Maliki and Nujaifi said on Sunday that they supported the reform drive, indicating that the proposed changes may have been made as part of a deal they endorsed.
“I renew my support for the reforms that are needed,” said Maliki, while Nujaifi announced his “support for and welcome of the decisions”.
Abbadi also called for a major overhaul of the way senior officials are selected, saying that all “party and sectarian quotas” should be abolished, and the candidates chosen by a committee appointed by the prime minister.