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Iraq's Protests, Economy, Popular Sentiment Impacted By Coronavirus From Iran

A member of medical team checks the body temperature of an Iraqi man upon arrival from Iran, east of Basra city, February 20, 2020

Schools and universities in Iraq will remain closed throughout next week as part of government measures to combat the spread of coronavirus from neighboring Iran.

Iraq's five-months-old protest movement which has been demanding overhaul of the political elite also faces a major scale-down following a new government call to stop all kinds of congregations which risk the outbreak of coronavirus disease.

The ministry of health and environment said in a statement on Sunday, March 1, "We appeal to the Iraqi people to adhere to the recommendations issued to prevent congregating for any reason, including religious occasions, gatherings, demonstrations, wedding events, funeral ceremonies, etc. to protect everyone from the risk of an outbreak of the coronavirus disease." It added that "at a time when the various ministries’ staff carried out their duties to provide all treatment services for the wounded demonstrators and security forces since the beginning of the protests", it now appeals to the public "to refrain from gathering anywhere so as to protect society."

No immediate statements have yet been issued by the protesters on social media to indicate if the demonstrators would heed the ban on congregations and gatherings, particularly in the main protest hub at Baghdad's downtown Tahrir Square.

On February 29, Iraq announced the detection of five new cases of coronavirus, four in Baghdad and one in Babel province, bringing the total number of cases nationwide to 13. The patients who traveled recently to Iran were placed in quarantine. The first positive case was detected last week in an Iranian religious student in the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf and was transferred back to Iran.

A separate statement issued by the health ministry clarified that tests were being conducted on more than eight thousand Iraqis who visited Iran during the recent period, following the spread of the coronavirus there.

On February 27, the government announced a ban on gatherings in public places such as cinemas, cafes and social clubs for ten days and barred entry by travelers from Kuwait and Bahrain in addition to prohibiting travel to or from a total of nine countries.

Anti-corona measures have been stepped up since last week when Iraq closed its borders to Iranian nationals.

Iraq has cultural and religious ties with Iran and annually receives millions of Iranian pilgrims. The New York Times reported on February 24 that governors of Iraqi provinces bordering Iran were taking the potential for contagion seriously and at least two were personally inspecting the border crossings to ensure that they were being policed and that Iranians were barred from crossing into Iraq.

The report said Qutaybah al-Jubouri, the head of the Iraqi Parliament’s Health Affairs Committee, called the coronavirus "a plague" and added his committee was demanding a far more complete closure of all "land, sea and air" borders with Iran "until the disease is completely controlled."

The Associated Press reported on February 27 that in Iraq, where anti-government demonstrators have also been protesting Iran’s influence in their country, many people have expressed open resentment at Tehran’s handling of the crisis as well as the performance of their own Iran-allied caretaker government.

Muhammad Baqir, a 22-year-old protester from Najaf, was quoted as saying, "We sympathize with the Iranian people from a humanitarian point of view, but we will not sympathize with the Iranian government no matter what." He added, "Iran did not offer anything to Iraq. All it did is steal and support militias and now it is exporting viruses", pointing out that the outbreak is sure to blunt the momentum of Iraq’s protest movement over contagion fears.

Political analyst Ihsan al-Shammari said the outbreak came at a time when Iraqis already were demonstrating against Iranian interference in their country. He added, "The appearance of the coronavirus and its arrival in Iraq via Iran exacerbates this anger and serves as yet another catalyst against Iran."

Iraq’s vital religious tourism sector was already suffering after months of protests and political turmoil before the novel coronavirus arrived from across the border. Agence France-Presse reports that in the southern Shi'ite holy city of Karbala, hotels have closed and face masks are more common on the street than the full-length black veils worn by female pilgrims.

Haidar, who sells rosaries and holy soil from the shrine of Imam Hussein, grandson of Prophet Mohammed, was quoted as saying his business had already been hit hard since mass anti-government protests broke out in October.

Millions of Shi'ite pilgrims, many from neighboring Iran, visit shrines in Karbala and nearby Najaf every year.

Writing in the 'The National Interest', Middle East expert Michael Rubin expressed the opinion that "Iranians may be victims of their government’s corruption and opacity but, in the long run, it will be the Iraqis who suffer."

Referring to the economic benefits of religious tourism which is a vital source of national income after oil, he explains that "restaurants, hotels, and malls all rely on the constant flow of Iranian pilgrims. Iran is also Iraq’s largest trading partner, and Iranian businessmen are a frequent sight in Iraqi four- and five-star hotels, some of which are the result of Iranian investment."

Rubin adds, "As the Iranian economy has descended into recession and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-owned businesses have also suffered, the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq have shifted their role: rather than receive Iranian largesse, increasingly they utilize their own business interests in Iraq to subsidize their Iranian sponsors."

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    Nabil Ahmed

    Nabil Ahmed is a former broadcast journalist at RFE/ RL's Iraq Service and an author writing about Iraq and the region. He is an occasional contributor to Radio Farda from Baghdad, Iraq