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Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric warns parliament not to stall Abadi’s reforms

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi gestures during a meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during the United Nations General Assembly at the United Nations in Manhattan, New York September 30, 2015.  REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric warned parliament on Friday not to use concerns over the legality of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s reforms as a tactic to block them, in a boost to the premier days after lawmakers sought to rein him in.

Parliament voted unanimously on Monday to bar the government from passing important reforms without its approval, resisting Abadi’s efforts to unilaterally reshape a governing system that critics say encouraged corruption.

“The need to protect the constitution and the law must not be used by the legislative or any other authority to circumvent or delay the reform steps,” Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said through an aide.

Sistani is one of the most influential figures in Iraq, an OPEC oil producer that faces numerous challenges, from a limping economy to an Islamic State insurgency and sectarian conflict.

Emboldened by popular protests and a call by Sistani, whose opinion few Iraqi politicians would openly challenge, Abadi announced measures in August aimed at dismantling a patronage system and rooting out the incompetence that has undermined Baghdad’s battle against militants.

Hours after Sistani’s sermon on Friday, Abadi appeared to try to assert his authority.

State television flashed comments attributed to an unnamed source in his office insisting that salaries for the three vice presidents and three deputy prime ministers, whose positions were set to be eliminated by the changes, had in fact been stopped months ago.

“They do not exercise any government capacity. There is no going back on that,” the source said.

“No withdrawal of authorization or obstacles (set by) corrupt ones can stop the march of reform,” the source added, referring to parliament’s vote earlier in the week.

Reuters could not immediately reach spokesmen for Abadi or the other officials.

Demonstrators in Baghdad and other cities braved the threat of violence and extreme heat last summer to protest against graft and demand better water and electricity services.

Abadi responded with reforms that included eliminating a layer of senior government posts, sacking a third of the cabinet, cutting politicians’ security details and perks, and reopening corruption probes.

But as those measures got bogged down by political infighting and legal challenges, protests faded.

Last week, more than 60 members of the ruling coalition threatened to withdraw parliamentary support for reforms unless Abadi heeded their demands for wider consultation.

Parliament has deemed some reforms a violation of the constitution, including the dismissal of the vice presidents.

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