Thousands of supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr surrounded several government ministries in Baghdad on Sunday in a fresh escalation by the firebrand Shia leader to press for a major cabinet reshuffle.
The move comes one day after al-Sadr threatened to stage a fresh round of protests within 72 hours if Iraqi leaders failed to vote on a "technocratic" cabinet lineup proposed by Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi with a view to ending endemic government corruption.
"We have begun an open-ended sit-in outside the ministries until the ministers resign to make way for a new government," protester Khaled Muwafak told Anadolu Agency.
"We will not back down until our demands -- namely, the resignation of the government and formation of a new cabinet -- are fulfilled," he said.
Iraqi security forces have erected barbed wire fences around the targeted ministries in an effort to prevent them from being stormed by protesters.
Iraq has been embroiled in a deepening political crisis since last month, when al-Sadr loyalists staged a number of protests outside Baghdad’s Green Zone to pressure al-Abadi to unveil a government of technocrats untainted by corruption or sectarian affiliations.
Last week, al-Abadi presented a modified list of candidates for the proposed technocrat government for parliamentary approval, but lawmakers have so far failed to vote on the proposed lineup.
The crisis escalated further last week when MPs refused to allow Parliament Speaker Salim al-Jabouri to chair an assembly session, accusing him of failing to summon al-Abadi to answer corruption allegations.
Last summer, parliament approved a sweeping raft of reforms proposed by the prime minister. The reforms are aimed at meeting popular demands to eliminate widespread government corruption and streamline state bureaucracy.
Iraq, a major OPEC exporter which sits on one of the world's largest oil reserves, ranks 161st out of 168 countries on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index.
By Ali Jawwad