The COVID-19 pandemic hit Iraq in late February, when the country was in its most fragile and vulnerable state and its caretaker government had been in deep hibernation since the start of mass protests in October 2019. Combined with the sharp drop of oil prices, this new blow is likely to further complicate the security, political and economic dynamics that have plagued Iraq for more than a decade.
Iraq’s first case of COVID-19 was an Iranian student attending classes in Najaf, the Shiite holy city and top clerical centre. He was diagnosed on 22 February 2020, quarantined and sent back home. However, it was not long before dozens of patients, almost invariably associated with visits to Iran, were identified across Iraq’s provinces, including the Kurdistan Region (KRI).
Initially, the Iraqi government was relatively slow to respond. Although they announced the closure of all border crossings with Iran in late February (only admitting returning Iraqi citizens), the numerous crossings remained porous and life on both sides of the border continued as normal for some time. It was mid-March when the Iraqi cabinet met and announced a series of strict measures, including a curfew in Baghdad, banning travel between provinces and authorising governors to impose curfews locally. The authorities (in Baghdad and Erbil) later created crisis units with branches in each governorate and developed comprehensive programs to limit the spread of the virus.
Unfortunately, not all Iraqis adhered to government guidelines or the curfew. Crowded religious ceremonies in the Shiite-majority areas continued to be held. Some religious and community leaders went as far as encouraging followers to attend all religious ceremonies and visit sites, stressing they would not be infected by the virus during pilgrimage. However, after a major religious pilgrimage to Imam Musa Al-Kadhim’s shrine in Baghdad on 21 March, the top religious and political leadersissued statements asking citizens to use appropriate caution and follow the government’s advice. In his latest fatwa, issued March 22, the top Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani made social distancing a mandatory religious duty. The Supreme Judicial Council also issued statements, expressing their will to impose fines on those who encourage people to gather in any form.
Iraqi officials are clearly anxious, not only due to the lack of cooperation of certain communities, but also the lack of means to face the pandemic. While the disease is spreading rapidly and has not yet peaked, the health system in Iraq, once one of the best in the Middle East, is in a shambles. It’s infrastructure and service provision are grossly inadequate in both quality and quantity. Furthermore, the central government of Baghdad was openly criticised by provincial governors for its late action, poor policing at the border crossings, and poor coordination.
The government is also facing challenges in tackling the social impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, including burial of the deceased. Shiites prefer to be buried in Najaf’s vast graveyard, which is organised into grave houses. But guardians of these grave houses and local communities are now refusing to receive COVID-19 victims. Many Sunni communities are joining the Shiites in asking the government to bury the dead in dedicated graveyards well away from inhabited towns.
In contrast, the KRI is in a different position with the pandemic. The number of cases remain limited, thanks to the more efficient closure of border crossings (with Iran and the rest of Iraq) and contact tracing inside the KRI. They applied strict measures to quarantine external visitors and Iraqi returnees. The KRI health system is not necessarily advanced but is in better shape than in the rest of Iraq. A total curfew was strictly imposed in the KRI on 13 March, extended a few times, and is still in place. Fortunately, the Iraqi government also extended curfews and movement restrictions until mid-April, which they are now enforcing more actively.
Obviously, fighting COVID-19 requires a fully functional government. Unfortunately, the Iraqi leaders have so far failed to form a new government despite attempts. A series of prime minister hopefuls or designates were identified recently, but none made it to the end. The latest candidate, Adnan Al-Zurfi (a former governor of Najaf and current member of parliament), was formally asked on 17 March to form a government within 30 days. The task is proving very daunting and he is not certain of winning the backing of the dominant pro-Iranian political parties, or securing the required parliamentary endorsement whilst MPs adhere to social distancing.
The US, on the other hand, seems to have grown less tolerant of the Iraqi government’s inability to cut back its ties to Iran, and control the pro-Iranian paramilitaries. US-Iran rivalry and the series of tit-for-tat military actions between US military and pro-Iranian paramilitary forces had strained relations between all stakeholders. The US has now withdrawn its sanctionwaiver allowing Iraq to import Iranian gas and electricity for 30 days, and sanctioned 20 individuals and entities said to have been taking advantage of the exemptions to channel money to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force.
In short, it is time for the Iraqi leaders to get their act together, expedite the formation of a new government and tackle the numerous challenges the country faces, otherwise the COVID-19 pandemic, the sharp drop in oil prices and international isolation are likely to drive it to the brink and inflict an existential blow to Iraq as a state and a nation.