March 18, 2016 / 3:39 AM / a year ago

Iraq's Sadr spurns calls to drop sit-in over "bastion of corruption"

Prominent Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr (C) speaks during a protest against corruption at Tahrir Square in Baghdad February 26, 2016.Alaa Al-Marjani/Files

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Influential Iraqi Shi'ite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr rejected calls to cancel a planned sit-in on Friday at the gates of Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, which he called "a bastion of support for corruption".

He published a statement on his website on Thursday in response to politicians who asked him to drop the protest over concern that it could lead to violence near the sensitive district, which houses government offices and embassies.

Sadr called for the sit-in last week to press Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to replace cabinet ministers with technocrats unaffiliated with political parties in order to counter systemic political patronage that has abetted corruption.

Early on Friday, the Interior Ministry published a statement saying it had not authorised the sit-in but did not indicate how it would deal with any protesters who do show up.

Sadr asked his followers to refrain from any violent reaction should they be stopped by the security forces and instead to await his instructions.

"We have other methods besides the sit-in ... that are no less effective," he said in his statement. "(But) no clashes, no weapons, no cutting off roads, no assaults, no disobedience."

Abadi on March 11 asked political blocs in parliament and "influential social figures" to nominate technocrats but he is also under pressure from political factions not to erode their powerful influence.

Corruption is eating away the central government's resources as it struggles with declining revenues due to rock-bottom oil prices while having to raise spending to fund the war against Islamic State militants.

"It will be a peaceful sit-in in front of the gates of the Green Zone, which is considered a bastion of support for corruption," Sadr said in his website statement.

Sadr, heir to a Shi'ite clerical dynasty in Shi'ite majority Iraq, has threatened a no-confidence vote in parliament unless technocratic ministers are named soon.

But his al-Ahrar bloc commands just 34 of 328 seats in parliament, and since he may not be able to vote down an eventual new cabinet, he has had to resort to street protests to maintain pressure on Abadi, leveraging his popularity among the poor in Shi'ite districts of Baghdad.

Reporting Saif Hameed; Writing by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Louise Ireland

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