Last updated: 14 April, 2016

Iraq MPs vote to remove parliament speaker

Iraqi lawmakers voted Thursday to remove the parliament speaker and his deputies from office, increasing political turmoil as the country battles jihadists and struggles with a financial crisis.

The chaos at parliament is a significant setback for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, overshadowing his efforts to replace the current cabinet and preventing nominees from being brought to a vote.

The turmoil has escalated over three successive sessions this week: the first ended in a sit-in, the second with a fistfight among lawmakers, and the third with the vote to remove parliament speaker Salim al-Juburi.

Juburi, one of the country’s leading Sunni Arab politicians, said in televised remarks that the session was marred “by many legal and constitutional errors,” and called for a normal session on Saturday.

An earlier statement from his office also asserted that Thursday’s session was “unconstitutional and lacked the necessary quorum.”

But Niyazi Oghlu, the official responsible for taking roll at parliament, put the number of lawmakers present at 173, while two MPs also said more than 170 attended.

The main Sunni bloc condemned the effort to remove Juburi.

“These calls will lead to the end of the concept of political partnership and the principle of consensus on which the political process was based,” it said in a statement read out by MP Ahmed al-Misari.

The vote was “very likely not valid” due to the lack of a quorum, said Kirk Sowell, a Jordan-based political risk analyst who is the publisher of Inside Iraqi Politics.

Juburi was targeted “mainly because of his alliance with Abadi, more than anything he had done himself,” and the episode was “very bad for Abadi despite (him) not facing a direct challenge,” Sowell said.

Abadi has called for the cabinet of party-affiliated ministers to be replaced by a government of technocrats, but has faced significant resistance from the powerful parties that rely on control of ministries for patronage and funds.

An “emergency” session on Wednesday ended with lawmakers shouting, shoving and throwing punches in the parliament hall, leading Juburi to call a recess.

– Cabinet dispute –

The speaker’s office said earlier in the day that Abadi was to give a revised list of nominees to parliament on Thursday, but the move to sack Juburi stole the spotlight.

Abadi presented a first list of cabinet nominees at the end of March, but the political blocs put forward their own candidates, and most of the premier’s original list was replaced on a second presented to MPs on Tuesday.

Some MPs demanded the opportunity to vote on Abadi’s original list — from which at least two candidates had already withdrawn — but the session was adjourned Tuesday without a vote.

Dozens of lawmakers then began a sit-in and spent the night at parliament.

Iraqi ministries have for years been shared out between powerful political parties that run them as their personal fiefdoms, relying on them for patronage and funds.

But even if the current cabinet line-up is replaced with independent, technocratic ministers — a change that faces major obstacles — that would only be the beginning of the process.

Ministries are packed with lower-level employees appointed on the basis of party and sectarian affiliation, and replacing them would face serious resistance.

Technocrats would also lack the cover afforded by party affiliation, and could face threats by armed groups opposed to changes they proposed.

Abadi called in February for “fundamental” change to the cabinet so that it includes “professional and technocratic figures and academics”.

That kicked off the latest chapter in a months-long saga of Abadi proposing various reforms that parties and politicians with interests in the existing system have sought to delay or undermine.

The political crisis comes as Iraqi forces battle to regain more ground from the Islamic State group, which seized swathes of the country in 2014.

And on Thursday the Counter-Terrorism Service completed the recapture of the town of Heet from IS, officials said.

Iraq has also been hit hard by the plummeting price of oil, revenues from account for the vast majority of government funds.