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Iraq PM says to bring in technocrats in cabinet reshuffle

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Tuesday he would reshuffle his cabinet to appoint technocrats to replace ministers appointed on the basis of political affiliations.

He gave no details about the timing of the change or what positions would be affected, but promised decisions soon including ones related to fighting corruption.

"Out of my responsibility ... to lead the country to safety, I call for a radical cabinet reshuffle to include professionals, technocrats and academics," Abadi said in a televised speech which focused largely on economic challenges facing Iraq, a major OPEC oil exporter.

By replacing ministers chosen on the basis of party affiliation or ethnic or sectarian identity, Abadi risks disturbing the delicate balance of Iraq's governing system in place since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 which toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

He acknowledged in his speech that the reshuffle would replace ministers chosen by political blocs and approved by parliament in accordance with the constitution, but urged politicians to cooperate.

Emboldened last summer by popular protests and a call for action by Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric, Abadi unilaterally moved at the time to dismantle the country's patronage system and root out corruption undermining the battle against Islamic State.

The ultra-hardline Sunni militant movement seized nearly a third of the country's northern and western territory in 2014 and regularly claims bomb attacks in Iraqi cities.

Abadi's reform campaign, however, soon got bogged down by legal challenges and opposition from entrenched interests. He has since been criticised for failing to take decisive action.

"It was our ambition to unite the efforts of all politicians, political blocs and lawmakers," he said. "We were answered with a smear campaign which we did not respond to in order to prioritise the public interest."

Iraq, whose income comes almost exclusively from oil sales, has struggled to pay its bills amid the fall in global crude prices. The 2016 budget projects a 24 trillion Iraqi dinar ($20.44 billion) deficit financed largely by aid from international organisations such as the World Bank.

Abadi said he had agreed with foreign countries to provide experts to help Iraq diversify its economy and invest in human and natural resources, and called for a comprehensive review of laws related to the economy, finance and state administration.

Wathiq al-Hashimi, chairman of the Iraqi Group for Strategic Studies think-tank, said Abadi's decision to reshuffle his cabinet puts him in a face-off with powerful political groups, including those in his own ruling alliance which last year pulled support for his reforms over concerns he had not consulted them.

"None of the parties will agree with him in changing their ministers and they will hit back with a motion of no confidence against Abadi," Hashimi predicted. "The country is heading to a serious crossroad and consequences are hard to predict."

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