October 10, 2016 - 11:57 AM
BAGHDAD - Iraq's supreme court struck down key reforms proposed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Monday, marking another setback for the increasingly isolated leader as he seeks to unite the country ahead of a march on the Islamic State-held city of Mosul.
The premier had proposed abolishing the two vice-presidential and deputy prime minister posts, largely ceremonial positions created after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to give the Sunni and Kurdish minorities a greater presence in the Shiite-led government.
Al-Abadi had argued that the positions, and the cost of maintaining security details for them, should be eliminated in order to streamline government and cut costs as low global oil prices squeeze Iraq's budget. The move was part of a package of reforms aimed at weakening Iraq's entrenched political blocs, which are widely blamed for the government's paralysis and inability to provide basic services.
The court ruled the move unconstitutional, however, saying that eliminating the posts would require the approval of an absolute majority in parliament followed by a national referendum.
Government spokesman Saad al-Hadithi dismissed concerns about the political fallout of Monday's ruling, but warned that the restoration of the offices would "affect the expenses of the state."
The lingering gridlock in Baghdad has raised concerns that even if U.S.-backed Iraqi forces drive IS from Mosul -- the country's second-largest city -- the government will be unable to ensure lasting peace and security.
The country's Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds remain deeply divided on a host of issues, and the blocs representing them are widely seen as corrupt and dysfunctional -- a toxic mix that contributed to the resurgence of IS, a Sunni extremist group, nearly three years ago.
In the two years since he assumed office, al-Abadi has sought to improve relations between Sunnis and the Shiite-led government, including with plans to establish a so-called national guard that would bring more Sunnis into the armed forces. The proposal has languished in parliament for more than a year.
"This government is not achieving a lasting peace, it's achieving a lasting animosity," said Saad al-Mutalabi, a parliamentarian and longtime ally of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was pushed from office after IS swept across northern and western Iraq in 2014 and is now one of al-Abadi's biggest opponents.
Parliament has dismissed two top Cabinet ministers in as many months over allegations of corruption. Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a prominent Kurdish politician, and Defence Minister Khaled al-Obeidi, the highest ranking Sunni in al-Abadi's government, denied any wrongdoing, and a number of parliamentarians said their removal was politically motivated.
In July, al-Abadi accepted the resignation of the interior minister amid growing public anger over security lapses in and around Baghdad that allowed IS to carry out attacks that killed hundreds of civilians. Smaller attacks are still a near-daily occurrence in Baghdad, and on Monday alone a string of seven bomb attacks across the city killed 14 people and wounded at least 33.
Despite the tensions in Baghdad, al-Abadi has vowed to launch the operation to retake Mosul by the end of the year.
"Victory is near," he told the residents of Mosul in a radio address earlier this month. After IS is defeated, he said, Iraqis will "co-operate to spread peace, love and tolerance among all."
Associated Press writers Salar Salim and Balint Szlanko in Irbil, Iraq, Murtada Faraj in Baghdad and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.
News from © The Associated Press, 2016