Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has ordered an overhaul of the judiciary as thousands of Iraqis celebrated his anticorruption drive in the streets and the nation's top cleric said the court system should be the next target.
Parliament unanimously approved Abadi's sweeping reforms shaking up the government earlier this week, a swift overhaul that sent thousands of gleeful Iraqis into the streets on August 14. The demonstrators waved Iraqi flags and criticized most politicians, while praising Abadi.
Abadi's program eliminates entire layers of government, scraps sectarian and party quotas for state positions, reopens corruption investigations, and gives the premier the power to fire regional and provincial bosses.
But one governmental sector not addressed was the judiciary. In his first public comments since the Abadi measures were adopted, Iraq's revered Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called for judicial reform as "one of the most important aspects of the reform process."
"It is not possible to achieve true reform without it. Even if corruption has spread to the judiciary, there is no small number of honest judges whose hands have not been tainted and will not hesitate to achieve justice," Sistani's spokesman, Sheikh Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalai, said.
Hours after Sistani spoke out, Abadi told the judiciary to "take radical measures to ensure the prestige and independence of the judiciary, and enable it to fight corruption and enshrine the principle of justice among citizens."
While providing no detail, Abadi said an overhaul was needed to support his earlier efforts.
"The wide reforms I called for require a just and impartial and firm judiciary to support these reforms," he said.
Part of Abadi's campaign calls for a committee of judges known for their integrity to investigate and prosecute corrupt officials. The premier has been pushing out government officials all week who are targets for investigation.
The governing system set up under the U.S. occupation included numerous overlapping senior posts, many set aside to be divvied up on ethnic and sectarian grounds among Iraq's majority Shi'ites and minority Sunni Muslims and Kurds.
That was intended to reduce strife by keeping the government inclusive. But Abadi, a Shi'ite, complained it encouraged ethno-sectarian party patronage and bred corruption and incompetence so pervasive it made Iraq nearly impossible to govern.
Critics have accused Abadi of trying to consolidate too much power in his own hands, which he denies.
"We do not wish to reinstate a political system where there is only one leader and everyone else is insignificant," Abadi said at a youth forum on August 13, an allusion to Saddam Hussein, who was overthrown in the U.S.-led 2003 invasion. "This is the return of dictatorship and we do not want it."
Sistani also called for reforming the security services following a massive bombing on August 13 in a Shi'ite district of Baghdad claimed by the Islamic State militant group, and for reducing inequality in the salaries of public employees.
"It is unacceptable that some major officials make tens of millions in salary every month, while many employees do not make more than 300,000 dinars ($261.32)," Karbalai said.
Demonstrators in Baghdad and other cities were enthusiastic about Abadi's start on reforms. Some carried pictures of the premier with the text, "All the people are with you."
Images of other politicians were also present, but with their faces crossed out in red.
"Abadi gets his power from the people, and now he has wide acceptance from us, and he has the support of the Marjaiya," said activist Mohammed Jabbar, referring to the Shi'ite religious leadership.
"The first reforms are acceptable, but we want more. We want to try the corrupt and get back the Iraqi money that was wasted," he said, echoing calls for reform of the judiciary.
Other demonstrators demanded changes such as installing a government of technocrats and sacking all the current ministers.
With reporting by Reuters and AFP