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Coronavirus aught Iraq at the worst of times

Mar 18,2020 - Last updated at Mar 18,2020

The coronavirus has caught Iraq at the worst of times. Mass protests, which began in October, brought down the government of Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, and Iraq's dysfunctional sectarian political system prevented his designated successor, Muhammad Tawfiq Allawi, from establishing a coalition to try to deal with Iraq's political and economic meltdown and end protracted protests that are disrupting daily life. Former Najaf governor Adnan Al Zurfi has now been appointed premier and has 30 days to form a government.

Opposition by the entrenched political cadre to Allawi's efforts to form a government of experts, Iraq has been unable to tackle mismanagement and corruption, issues which have prompted hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in Baghdad and the Shia south to take to the streets to call for reform and regime change. Despite the efforts of the authorities to use appearance in the country of the coronavirus, Iraqis vow to maintain their protests until the fall of the Shia-dominant sectarian regime planted by the US after the 2003 occupation. Demonstrators regard corruption as being worse than the coronavirus. During one rally in Baghdad, they even called upon the virus to wreak vengeance upon the politicians and militiamen who killed and injured hundreds of protesters over the past five months.

While Iraq is gripped by political deadlock, the US military and Iran, via local Shia militias, are conducting an escalating mini-war of attrition on Iraqi soil. Camp Taji, an Iraqi military base which hosts foreign troops north of Baghdad, was struck by rockets twice last week. The first attack killed two US personnel and a British soldier. The US retaliated with an air raids on arsenals accessed by Kataeb Hizbollah, a pro-Iranian faction within the Hashd Al Shaabi, the Popular Mobilisation Units which fought Daesh and have formally merged with the Iraqi army. At least five members of Iraq's security forces and one civilian were killed, but there were no casualties from Kataeb Hizbollah.

The second rocket attack wounded three troops from the US-led coalition and two Iraqi airforce officers. This incident was the 23rd since October on Iraqi facilities where foreign troops are accommodated and from which they operate.

These strikes elicited strong denunciation from Iraq's President Barham Saleh, who called the US actions violations of Iraq's sovereignty since they have been conducted without Baghdad's permission and in breach of the 2014 agreement. This defines the role of US troops in Iraq as aiding the Iraqi army’s campaign against Daesh. He said these violations could transform Iraq into a failed state and revive Daesh. Politicians and Hashd Al Shaabi commanders have repeatedly called for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Iraq.

Tit-for-tat attacks peaked after a rocket strike in late December, which killed a US contractor on a base in northern Iraq. This was blamed by the US on Kataeb Hizbollah although the facility is located in the Kirkuk region, where Daesh fugitives abound and mount frequent operations against the Iraqi army and local villagers. On January 3rd, a US drone slew Iranian Quds force Commander Qassem Soleimani and Hashd Al Shaabi deputy head Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis. Iran responded by firing ballistic missiles at Al Asad airforce base in western Iraq, moderately wounding more than 100 US service personnel.

The strikes on bases harbouring US troops has prompted the Pentagon to rethink its deployment in Iraq. The US is planning to pull out soldiers from smaller bases at Al Qaim near the Syrian border and airfields in the north near Mosul and Kirkuk. The latter was where the attack which killed the contractor in December took place.

At the time of writing, Iraq had suffered 10 coronavirus deaths and 110 infections. The initial fatality was an elderly imam in Suelimaniya. Twenty-eight other people were infected in the Kurdish region, which has banned travel to Baghdad-ruled areas for two weeks.

Iraq has closed its border with Iran, which is responsible for regional spread, and banned travel to virus-infected states. Baghdad has also ordered the closure of schools, universities, shopping centres and cinemas, and suspension of mass religious events. Working hours of government agencies have been cut. Local authorities have imposed curfews. Under clerical pressure, Shiite shrines have remained open, however, permitting people to gather in worship although this is risky behaviour.

The virus could spread like wildfire through crowded urban slum areas, like Sadr City on the edge of Baghdad, camps for civilians displaced by warfare, and inhabitants of towns and villages requiring reconstruction. Iraq suffers from poor sanitation, electricity outages, pollution and a shortage of clean water although it has earned $70 billion annually in oil revenues in recent years.

Before the imposition of sanctions following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the devastation wrought by the 1991 and 2003 wars, Iraq had the best health system in this region, which provided care to 90 per cent of the population. Due to sanctions and conflict, the system was in crisis when the coronavirus erupted and began to spread throughout the society.

The situation has become all the more difficult because many Iraqis do not trust the government to tackle the virus efficiently and effectively and blame Iran for the infection. "Both Tehran and Baghdad are liars," chant the protesters.

The advent of the coronavirus coincides with a sharp plunge in the price of oil, reducing Iraq's revenues from exports at a time the country's needs funds to battle the virus and tend to infected citizens.

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