Baghdad (AFP) - Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi Thursday ordered major cuts in the number of guards for officials, the latest step in a reform drive to curb corruption and streamline the government.
Abadi rolled out a reform programme this month in response to popular pressure from weeks of protests against corruption and poor services, and to a call for drastic change from Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Parliament has approved Abadi's plan along with additional measures, but a major gap remains between announcements and implementation.
Abadi ordered "major cuts in the number of personal guards for officials and the presidencies and others, reaching up to 90 percent," his office said in a statement.
He also ordered "the abolition of the special protection regiments belonging to individuals and their return to the defence and interior ministries," the statement said, referring to large guard units of some senior officials.
The measures will see over 20,000 guards who were paid more than 250 billion dinars ($208.3 million) per year to guard a limited number of officials become available for duty with the army and police, spokesman Saad al-Hadithi said.
The orders came four days after Abadi announced he was scrapping 11 of 33 cabinet posts, cutting three deputy premier and four ministerial posts, and merging four more ministries.
Amid a major heatwave that has seen temperatures top 50 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit), protesters have railed against the poor quality of services, especially power outages that leave just a few hours of government-supplied electricity per day.
Thousands of people have turned out in Baghdad and cities in the Shiite south to vent their anger and pressure the authorities to make changes.
Their demands were given a boost when Sistani called on August 7 for Abadi to take "drastic measures" against corruption, saying the "minor steps" he had announced fell short.
The following Friday, Sistani said judicial reforms were needed, and Abadi responded by calling on the judiciary to carry out measures to ensure its independence and allow it to fight corruption.
Calls for change by Sistani, who is revered by millions, have shielded as well as influenced Abadi's efforts, as it is politically risky for rival Shiite politicians to publicly oppose measures called for by the top cleric.
But even with popular support and Sistani's backing, the entrenched nature of corruption and the fact parties across the political spectrum benefit from it will make any efforts extremely difficult.