Influential Iraqi Shiite cleric calls for government reforms

BAGHDAD: Iraq's influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called for government reform Saturday, demanding greater accountability and threatening to withdraw from the political process if his proposal is not accepted and the government does not show results within a year.

Al-Sadr's comments follow a slew of similar demands from Iraq's political and religious elite after months of stalled progress on a reform package Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi proposed last summer.

Among a series of economic and political reforms, Al-Sadr called for Iraq's powerful Shiite militias to be formally incorporated into Iraq's existing security forces. This would also include Sadr's own militia, Saraya al-Salam, which was formed following the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State group in June 2014.

Al-Sadr also echoed al-Abadi's call this week for a Cabinet reshuffle. Al-Abadi proposed the reforms following widespread protests in Iraq last summer demanding better services and an end to corruption.

"Let it be known that the non-implementation of these items is a betrayal of Iraq and its people," al-Sadr said.

Iraq is engaged in a humanitarian and security crisis that erupted as the Islamic State group swept across the country. It is also battling a crippling economic crisis that threatens to further choke the government's ability to provide basic domestic services.

Earlier this month, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite cleric, also signaled his dissatisfaction with government inaction by suspending his Friday sermons. For more than a decade the sermons had offered guidance to Iraqi leadership that carried the respect of the Iraqi street, but in recent weeks al-Sistani himself complained about the repetitive nature of his messages.

"All these issues have been repeated endlessly until our voices became sore," he said in a speech in late January.

Once considered an indispensable powerbroker in Iraq, al-Sadr's political clout has waned recently as other Shiite militia leaders with closer links to Iran have grown in prominence following the collapse of the Iraqi security forces. As IS pushed has toward Baghdad, Shiite militias have filled the vacuum and have grown more powerful than the country's own security forces.

The Iraqi government-allied militias are now officially sanctioned and known as Popular Mobilisation Committees. Many militias, such as al-Sadr's, trace their roots to the armed groups that battled US troops after the 2003 invasion.