The US issued its highest level travel alert for Iraq on Tuesday, urging citizens not to travel to the war-scarred country because of mounting security risks and Covid-19.
“Do not travel to Iraq due to terrorism, kidnapping, armed conflict, civil unrest, Covid-19,” the US State Department said on its website, adding that its diplomatic mission to Iraq has a limited capacity to provide support to US citizens.
It said US citizens are at risk of violence and kidnapping due to attacks by militant groups against Iraqi security forces and almost daily attacks by Iran-backed Shiite militias against US assets in the country.
The statement said sporadic protests “can develop quickly without prior notification, often interrupting traffic, transportation, and other services; such events have the potential to turn violent.”
It also cited the Level 4 Travel Health Notice issued by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, which advises Americans to avoid travelling to Iraq, saying “even fully vaccinated travellers may be at risk” of contracting the virus.
Although coronavirus infections have dropped significantly in recent weeks to less than 1,000 a day, health authorities have warned a fourth wave of the pandemic is imminent.
On Monday, the country registered 829 new cases and 21 deaths, taking the total number of confirmed infections to 2,075,248 and known fatalities to 23,686, although the real figures are thought by experts to be much higher.
The decision has taken Iraqis by surprise as Covid-19 restrictions have eased. Foreign tourists, businessmen and archaeologists have been returning.
Amir Abdul-Razaq Al Zubaidi, general director of the provincial antiquities department in the southern Thi Qar province, described the decision as “hasty.”
“We are surprised because Iraq has significantly recovered from coronavirus and the number of tourists from all the world, mainly from the US, is increasing,” Mr Al Zubaidi told The National.
He said American tourists and others are already travelling freely in his province and other parts of southern Iraq without any problem.
“We don't want cross-cultural communication to be affected and so we hope that the US administration will reconsider such a decision,” he added.
Last month, Iraq held early national elections to choose a new parliament, the fifth since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Early elections were one of numerous demands of the pro-reform, youth-led protest movement that engulfed the country in October 2019.
Initial results show that a political group sponsored by the Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, known as the Sadrist bloc, was the clear winner in the elections, securing 73 seats in the 329-member parliament.
The Iran-backed Fatah Alliance, made up mainly of pro-Tehran Shiite militias, won only 14 seats, significantly fewer than the 48 seats it secured in 2018 elections.
Shiite political parties, mainly the Fatah Alliance, have rejected the results as manipulated and demanded recounts of all ballot boxes.
Their supporters have been protesting outside Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, the home of key government offices, the Independent High Electoral Commission and foreign embassies.
Earlier this month the protests turned violent, leaving two militiamen killed and more than 100 protesters and security personnel wounded.
Days later, the country’s Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi survived an exploding drone assassination attempt.
Although investigations are continuing, Iran-backed Shiite militias stand accused of launching the attack on Mr Al Kadhimi’s residence.