Iraq: Al Sadr suspends protests as fifth coronavirus case is confirmed

New cases are reported as health ministry extends travel ban from China and Iran

epa08244101 Members of Iraqi medical team check passengers upon arrival from Iran at Baghdad international airport in Baghdad, Iraq, 24 February 2020. According to reports, Iraqi health authorities said on 24 February that an Iranian national in the city of Najaf tested positive for the coronavirus, becoming the first confirmed case of the COVID-19 disease in the country. Iraqi authorities have taken action to screen those arriving at the airports and border crossings with Iran, while the Iraqi airlines canceled all flights to Iran, following the cases of the deadly Covid-19 Coronavirus diagnosed in Iran.  EPA/AHMED JALIL

Iraq's influential Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr called off anti-government protests on Tuesday over coronavirus fears as the country suspended flights from China and Iran.

Several countries closed their borders with Iran as a precautionary measure to halt the potential spread of Covid-19 after Tehran reported more than 50 cases of the virus.

Five new cases were reported in Iraq, with the country's health ministry confirming on Tuesday the diagnosis of four new cases in one family in the northern city of Kirkuk.

They had recently returned from Iran.

Iraq's first case, an infected Iranian worshipper in Najaf, was confirmed on Monday.

Iraq's prime minister-designate Mohammed Allawi, who is currently scrambling to form a new government, was warned by Mr Al Sadr that his supporters would hold a "million-man" protest if Mr Allawi failed to establish a new Cabinet by the end of this week.

But Mr Al Sadr said he called off the march in light of coronavirus developments.

"I have called for a million-man protest and today I forbid you from it for the sake of your health," Mr Al Sadr said in a tweet.

“It is more important to me than anything else.”

His statement comes after months of anti-government protests rocked the country demanding better public services and an end to corruption.

The health ministry extended an entry ban on travellers from China and Iran, as well as tourists arriving from Thailand, South Korea, Japan, Italy or Singapore.

Public gatherings in Najaf were also banned until further notice and the ministry said similar gatherings would be banned throughout Iraq.

Schools and universities were also shut in the southern city for the next 10 days.

Strict measures have been taken “to safeguard the health of citizens across Iraq and to control the spread of the coronavirus after the first case was recorded,” the ministry said.

Health Minister Jaafar Allawi met President Barham Salih on Tuesday to discuss ways to prevent the spread of the virus and support those effected by the outbreak.

Iraq's deputy health minister, Jassim Al Falhy, told The National this month that the ministry was in great need of international support to help it prepare for an outbreak.

"We have set up special wards to receive infectious cases, but we need more support in this direction, especially in the medical and nursing capacity,” Mr Al Falhy said.