BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Powerful Iraqi Shi'ite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for the "government of corruption” to be overthrown on Friday in the biggest show of opposition yet to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's authority.
Around 200,000 people rallied at the entrance to the heavily fortified Green Zone in central Baghdad, demanding reform, better services and an end to corruption in response to a call by Sadr.
Abadi promised political and economic reforms last summer after mass street protests, but quickly ran into legal challenges and systemic resistance to change.
Last month he vowed to appoint technocrats to replace ministers appointed on the basis of political affiliations but that pledge too remains unfulfilled and frustration with the government has increased.
“A chance should be given to efficient independent people, and those who took Iraq to the abyss should step aside,” said Sadr, whose Al-Ahrar bloc holds 34 seats in parliament and three cabinet posts
Sadr's speech was broadcast on huge screens set up in the street and protesters waved Iraqi flags outside the entrance to the Green Zone, which was guarded by riot police standing behind razor wire.
Sadr, whose opinion holds sway over tens of thousands, including fighters who fought U.S. troops in 2006-07, threatened to break into the Green Zone unless Abadi took action.
The Green Zone houses government buildings and foreign embassies including that of the United States and has also become a symbol of the isolation of Iraq's rulers from its citizens.
Baghdad-based political analyst Ahmed Younis said failure to root out corruption, and economic pressures due to slumping oil prices compounded by the battle against Islamic State had "pushed Abadi with the country to the edge of a cliff".
"Everybody is watching Abadi drag his feet in carrying out real reforms.... Moqtada al-Sadr is now trying to take the imitative and be the winner in the reform race”.
After a 100,000-strong protest held by Sadr last week, Abadi said it was his critics that stood in the way: “The political blocs are still holding on to their ministers and by doing so we cannot reform the country,” Abadi added.
Muhanad al-Gharrawi, an aide to Sadr and leader of the protests said: “Today we are here to call for major reform. We want a technocratic government that serves Iraq’s interests. We won’t accept a solution to be like morphine used only to tranquilize the anger of people."
Reporting by Kareem Raheem, Saif Hameed and Ahmed Rasheed; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Dominic Evans