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Military Tensions Intensify As Iraq Battles Coronavirus Spreading From Iran

Members of Iraqi security forces are seen at a civilian airport under construction which was hit by a U.S. air strike, in the holy Shi'ite city of Kerbala, March 13, 2020

Amid intensified U.S.-Iran tensions following the latest rocket attack on March 14 against a military base housing coalition forces, Iraqis are braced for an imminent announcement of a state of emergency for thirty days to confront coronavirus which spread in the country from neighboring Iran.

Meanwhile, local authorities in several provinces have already imposed curfews to contain the virus, which has infected 114 people in addition to causing10 deaths by March 15. The curfew is also to take effect in the capital Baghdad as of Tuesday evening, March 17 until March 24, and in the holy Shi'ite city of Karbala for three days starting on March 16.

This follows other extensive measures countrywide to contain the spread of coronavirus, including the suspension of schools and universities until March 21, in addition to a ban on travel between governorates and the closure of public places such as restaurants, cafes, cinemas, shopping malls, parks and mosques.

While public sentiment continues to be impacted by coronavirus spreading from Iraq’s eastern borders, the cycle of attacks on military bases by Iran-linked militias and retaliatory U.S. strikes have also heightened public anger at the fact that Iraq continues to be the theater for settling scores between Tehran and Washington.

The most recent rocket attack which hit al-Taji camp housing U.S. troops on Saturday, March 14, wounded at least three American military personnel and two Iraqi troops. It followed an earlier attack on the same base where Iran-backed militia struck on Wednesday, killing two Americans and a British soldier.

Saturday's rocket attack came less than two days after the U.S. retaliatory air strikes at facilities in Iraq that the Pentagon linked to Kataib Hezbollah militia, a part of "al-Hashd al-Shaabi" (Popular Mobiliztion Forces - PMF). Iraqi officials protested the U.S. air strikes and said members of local security forces were among the dead.

The Washington Post quoted an unidentified European official in Baghdad as saying additional rocket attacks on coalition bases in Iraq were expected in the wake of the American strikes on Friday.

The Post added that Abu Ali al-Askari, a de facto spokesman for Kataib Hezbollah, has warned Iraqi security forces to distance themselves from coalition troops and facilities by Sunday, suggesting the group’s intent to conduct further attacks.

On his part, General Frank McKenzie, commander of the U.S. Central Command, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying on Friday that counterstrikes on PMF bases were intended to send a message to Kataib Hezbollah and Iran that further assaults on coalition forces would not be tolerated. If that message is ignored, the U.S. could respond with additional strikes, he told reporters.

On Iraq's fight against coronavirus, meanwhile, the authorities temporarily closed on all land border crossings with Iran March 15, outside of Iraqi Kurdistan for two weeks.

Iranians have been banned from entering Iraq for the last three weeks. But diplomats were exempted and some have been trying to bend the rules to bring in their families, The New York Times reported.

Iraq-Iran borders had been largely porous, with families living on both sides and Shiite Muslim religious pilgrims going back and forth. But the coronavirus pandemic changed that overnight.

The Times recounted stories of returning Iraqis that offered a glimpse of the situation in Iran, which has been largely hidden from the country’s own citizens as well as from the rest of the world. It quoted a returning Iraqi, Jowad Abu Sajat, who was interviewed at Zurbatiya border crossing as saying: "It’s a disaster there." He added, "The disease — we thought that the Iranians were giving accurate numbers, but then when I went out and saw people on the street. I understood the number of sick and dead was higher than they had said and I was afraid."

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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