BAGHDAD Iraq's powerful Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr warned on Saturday he would re-start protests within 72 hours if the nation's leaders failed to vote on a cabinet of technocrats proposed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to tackle corruption.
His warning came as influential politicians lobbied Abadi to modify his plan and appoint candidates of their choice.
The political crisis is crippling parliament and Abadi says it threatens to hamper Iraq's campaign against Islamic State militants who still control swathes of territory in the north and west of the oil-rich state.
Sadr addressed his warning to Abadi, who belongs to the Shi'ite majority, and to the two other top state officials, President Fuad Masum, a Kurd, and Parliament Speaker Salim al-Jabouri, a Sunni Muslim.
"The three presidencies should coordinate in order to hold a session and present a cabinet of independent technocrats," Sadr said, demanding that current ministers resign immediately.
The cabinet overhaul should be presented "in less than 72 hours, while keeping the sit-in in parliament with unlimited popular support through peaceful protests", Sadr said.
He was referring to a lawmakers' sit-in that began on Tuesday in protest over a modified list of candidates that Abadi had planned to present for a vote under pressure from leading politicians. The dissenting MPs say it will allow corruption to continue to flourish.
Iraq, a major OPEC exporter which sits on one of the world's largest oil reserves, ranks 161th out of 168 countries on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index.
Abadi's initial line-up, presented on March 31, was made up of independent professionals who he hoped could free their ministries from the grip of dominant political groups that have built their influence and wealth on a system of patronage put in place since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Parliament has already postponed the vote on Abadi's government overhaul three times.
The crisis escalated further on Saturday when the dissenting lawmakers refused to allow Jabouri to chair a session of parliament, prompting him to cancel it. They accuse him of failing to allow a session for them to grill Abadi over his proposed cabinet line-up.
Speaking on television on Saturday, Jabouri urged Iraq's political blocs to discuss how to end the stalemate.
"The Iraqi parliament is one ... and we wouldn't want it to convene if we are not together," he said.
Abadi announced his government overhaul in February under pressure from the Shi'ite clergy as the population continues to suffers from high unemployment and lack of basic services.
Corruption became a major issue after oil prices collapsed in 2014, shrinking the state budget at a time when it needed additional income to pay for war on the hardline Sunni group.
(Editing by Gareth Jones)
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