Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki made a rare appearance at Iraq’s parliament on Saturday to push for slashing the size of a national unity government that critics charge with inaction.
His questioning by MPs comes with the key issue of whether or not a US military contingent will remain in Iraq beyond a year-end deadline for their withdrawal looming just days ahead of the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, when little in the way of political progress is typically accomplished.
The premier arrived at the Council of Representatives in the afternoon and was meeting with MPs.
Journalists hoping to attend the session were not allowed in to the parliamentary chamber, and were instead herded together in a separate room and told to await a news conference later on Saturday. The session was not televised.
Maliki’s 46-member cabinet, which he hopes to slash to 30 ministers, is the biggest in Iraq’s history, and was only approved in December after protracted horse-trading that followed March 2010 elections in which no party gained a clear majority.
The premier sent a letter to MPs outlining his proposals on July 13, noting the government’s size had become “a burden” on work and Iraq’s budget as it seeks to rebuild from three decades of war and sanctions.
Maliki’s plans require dramatically cutting the number of ministers of state and firing three cabinet ministers.
Iraq’s government has been criticised for inaction on key issues to do with rebuilding the country, with nationwide protests since February railing against official corruption and ineptitude.
The inaction has also affected the issue of whether or not some US forces will be asked to stay beyond 2011.
Ali Mussawi, media adviser to Maliki, said on Friday that a meeting of political leaders to debate whether or not any US soldiers should stay on, originally scheduled for Saturday, had been indefinitely delayed.
He said the talks were postponed because President Jalal Talabani, who was to lead them, had to visit the northern city of Arbil to attend condolence ceremonies for the mother of Massud Barzani, president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region. She died on Wednesday.
US officials have pressed their Iraqi counterparts to decide soon on whether or not they want any American military presence beyond 2011.
Iraqi leaders, however, have already missed a self-imposed July 23 deadline to reach agreement and in the past, political deals have rarely been reached during Ramadan, which is set to begin on Monday and last through August.