BAGHDAD : Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Sunday sacked his minister of electricity after three weeks of protests against corruption and chronic power cuts in the energy-rich country.
A statement from Abadi’s office said the premier sacked Qassem al-Fahdawi - whose departure was demanded by protesters - “because of the deterioration in the electricity sector”.
Iraq has been gripped by protests over power outages, unemployment, state mismanagement and a lack of clean water.
The demonstrations - during which 14 people have been killed in clashes - erupted in the neglected southern province of Basra, home to Iraq’s only sea port, before spreading north including to Baghdad.
On Sunday, protesters held sit-ins outside the governor’s headquarters in Basra and Samawa, in neighbouring Muthana province, AFP correspondents said.
Power shortages are chronic in Iraq, a country devastated by conflicts including the war against the Islamic State group which held a third of the country before Abadi declared victory over the jihadists in December.
Hours-long electricity cuts are a source of deep discontent among Iraqis, especially during the scorching summer months when demand for air conditioning surges as temperatures soar past 50 degrees Celsius (120 Fahrenheit).
Since the ouster of dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraq has allocated some $40 billion (35 billion euros) in state funds to rebuild its power network and meet the needs of a 38-million-strong population, official figures show.
But much of that has been syphoned off by politicians and businessmen in a country listed by Transparency International as the world’s 12th-most corrupt.
A government official told AFP on Sunday that Abadi had also ordered investigations launched into fake contracts.
Fahdawi commended the premier’s call for investigations and called on ministry staff to cooperate with the probes, one of his advisers said.
Political analyst Hisham al-Hashemi did not expect Fahdawi’s sacking to appease the protest movement. For that to happen, he said, “the managers of all ministries should be put on trial”.
Since 2003, more than 5,000 so-called “phantom contracts” have been signed in the public sector, according to Iraq’s parliament. During the same period, $228 billion has gone up in smoke due to shell companies, it says.
A lawyer, Tareq al-Maamuri, recently lodged a complaint against Fahdawi and his ministry for failing to provide electricity.
He also demanded prosecutions over alleged “embezzlement of public funds”.
Since Saddam’s toppling in 2003, successive electricity ministers have been sacked over corruption or forced to quit in the face of angry protests.
One of them fled abroad after he was accused of embezzling $500 million.
In 2010, one of Fahdawi’s predecessors, Karim Wahid, resigned after a wave of protests across central and southern Iraq against draconian power rationing.
Power shortages have forced Iraqis to buy electricity from private entrepreneurs who run generators visible on street corners across the country.
Despite the shortages, electricity consumption has risen since 2003 as Iraqis make more use of household electronic equipment including computers and mobile phones.
Iraq - the second-largest oil producer within the OPEC cartel - sits on some of the world’s largest crude reserves, with the oil sector accounting for 89 percent of the state budget.
Officials say the expensive war against IS and a slump in world crude prices have emptied state coffers of the funds desperately needed to rebuild infrastructure.
They also blame Iraqis who they say are not paying their utility bills.
Fahdawi’s sacking comes amid political tensions as Iraq awaits the results of a partial recount of May 12 elections, while political factions jostle to cobble together a coalition.