Coronavirus: Political battles putting Iraqis at risk

Pro-Iranian militia mobilised supporters to mark religious occasion in Baghdad despite government curfew

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A curfew went into effect in Baghdad yesterday to counter the spread of coronavirus as muscle flexing by local militias and lack of central control over ties with Iran undermined Iraq’s response to the pandemic.

Residents of Baghdad said observance of the one-week curfew was mixed, partly due to preparations going ahead for a religious commemoration scheduled for today.

Photos and footage on social media showed some streets empty while pilgrims marched in others wearing black clothes and carrying green flags.

A cleric in Baghdad told The National that the curfew, together with a separate one on domestic travel, did not stop thousands of Shiites from marching this week on foot to the Kadhimiya district of Baghdad.

They have been coming from outlying areas to mark the death of Musa Al Kadhim, the seventh Shiite imam. The marchers are mostly followers of Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr and other militia chiefs.

"Many people are obeying the curfew but the authorities are not doing anything to disperse the misguided masses descending on Baghdad," said the cleric, who did not want to be named.

"Lack of uniform measures is astonishing, as if the virus does is not an issue," he said.

Footage on Facebook this week showed a group of young marchers shouting: “What is coronavirus? We are the soldiers of Al Kadhim.”

The commemoration will take place in an ornate shrine in the district bearing the name of Imam Al Kadhim.

The virus and religion has developed into a thinly veiled continuation of the duel between Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, Iraq’s highest Shiite authority, and Mr Al Sadr, a populist cleric who had turned against the Iraqi uprising, which broke out in October.

Mr Al Sistani, who is a relative moderate, said that orders by the authorities to curb assembly amid the coronavirus should be respected.

Mr Al Sadr, on the other hand, said on Twitter he was astonished at those who had stopped visiting shrines in Iraq and abroad because of the coronavirus. Pressure by his followers kept Shiite shrines across the country mostly open.

Early this year Mr Sadr united with other militia leaders supported by Iran, and with the government, behind the crackdown, which together with the virus, caused the demise of the uprising.

Middle East:

The government has been violently suppressing the mass protest movement demanding the removal of the political class. Iraq’s High Commission for Human Rights said security forces and militia allied with the government killed more than 500 protesters in the past five months. Activists said the number is at least double that.

On Monday loyalist forces attacked Al Khilani Square in central Baghdad, a regular site of sit-ins, using live ammunition. Local media reported that at least 30 demonstrators were admitted to hospital, with some badly wounded by bullets and shot from hunting cartridges.

Many Iraqi Shiite officials have also tacitly backed a militia warfare against US troops in Iraq. The hostilities, which escalated in the past two weeks, combined with a coronavirus spread, could overwhelm the dilapidated health system and infrastructure if it develops into a larger conflict.

Officially at 154 cases and 11 deaths, Iraq's virus spread is a fraction of the infections across the country’s border with Iran.

But any political blow from the fallout of widespread infections to the Iranian clerical establishment could affect their political and militia associates in Iraq, who they fund and support through Iranian intelligence, a European diplomat keeping tabs on the regional virus scene said.

Popular discontent is emerging over what are perceived as shoddy measures that are feared will result in a virus spike. Many Iraqis mocked the curfew on social media as a token measure and part of what they regard as the government’s politicised response to the virus.

Comments on social media pointed to the militias whose activity and training spans Syria and Iran and cited failure to control the border, although officials in Tehran had abandoned earlier denials and hinted at the possibility of a catastrophic scenario in Iran.

Iraqi political commentator Hussein Rahi said failure to act as soon as the virus broke in Iran appears to have been the cause of most of the casualties in Iraq.

“Could the ignorance of the authorities and their subjugation to Iran have reached such levels?” Mr Rahi tweeted.