In Iraq, deadly coronavirus terrifies even doctors hardened by conflict

An Iraqi soldier checks the temperature of an officer in Baghdad during a curfew imposed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease. (Reuters)
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Updated 28 March 2020

In Iraq, deadly coronavirus terrifies even doctors hardened by conflict

  • The UN praised Iraq’s early measures in closing borders last month but has urged respect for the curfew

BADGHDAD: Through decades of conflict, Dr. Haidar Hantoush has watched wounded soldiers and civilians flood into Iraq’s emergency wards. But he’s never been so scared.
“Violence we can just about handle. Patients stream into hospitals for hours at a time — but you can see how many there are. You get a lull to prepare for the next round,” said Hantoush, public health director for southern province Dhi Qar.
“With coronavirus, there’s no safe place. We don’t know when the number of cases will explode ... Even the world’s best health care systems can’t cope.”
Doctors and nurses across Iraq have treated hundreds of thousands of victims during decades of civil war, violence and sanctions, while watching what was once one of the best health care systems in the Middle East crumble.
Now, they say Iraq may be singularly unprepared for the coronavirus.
Iraq has a porous border with Iran, the worst-hit Middle Eastern country so far. The Iraqi religious calendar is dotted with annual pilgrimages, some of the biggest mass gatherings on earth, which typically attract millions of worshippers.
And since last year, Iraq’s major cities have seen mass anti-government demonstrations that killed hundreds of people. State institutions are paralyzed by political deadlock after the government resigned and politicians failed to form a new one.
So far, Iraq has counted more than 450 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases and 40 deaths, most of them in the past week. But doctors worry that those figures barely scratch the surface of an epidemic that may already be raging undetected across crowded cities.
“There are many unrecorded cases. People aren’t getting tested or taking it seriously,” Hantoush said.
Loudspeakers on mosques in Baghdad blast out government guidelines daily urging people to stay at home and get tested if they think they are ill. A curfew is in place until April 11. Borders are shut and international flights halted.

With coronavirus, there’s no safe place. We don’t know when the number of cases will explode ... Even the world’s best health care systems can’t cope.

Dr. Haidar Hantoush, Public health director

But getting the message across is difficult in a country with deep distrust of the authorities. Tribes have sometimes refused to allow women with symptoms to be isolated because they do not want them to be alone in hospitals, Hantoush said.
Thousands of Iraqis participated in the most recent of Iraq’s major pilgrimages, to the shrine of a Shiite Imam in Baghdad, where they crowded in defiance of the curfew.
“We’re now asking pilgrims to self-isolate for 14 days,” said Dr. Laith Jubr, 30, who works at a Baghdad ward testing suspected coronavirus cases.
The hospital had three deaths from the virus in the last week, he said, and several staff tested positive. Some people showing symptoms refused to be tested because they did not want to spend time in isolation.
“If this gets bigger it could be beyond our control. We could have 1,000 cases next week. There’s a lack of ventilators and other equipment — maybe 10 ventilators at our hospital.”
Jubr said many Iraqis were nonchalant because they thought they had “seen it all” through years of war.
“This is dangerous. We’re facing a hidden enemy that requires not just doctors but the whole population to combat it.”
Security forces deployed on Friday to Baghdad’s densely populated Sadr City district, home to millions including many pilgrims, to enforce the curfew, a statement said.
The UN praised Iraq’s early measures in closing borders last month but has urged respect for the curfew.
One Baghdad doctor said a sharp rise in cases is imminent.
“We’re bracing for what happens in the next two weeks. And we can’t cope,” he said.


New Daesh leader was informant for US, says counter terrorism report

Updated 18 September 2020

New Daesh leader was informant for US, says counter terrorism report

  • CTC said it is “highly confident” Al-Mawla became the new leader of Daesh after the previous leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, was killed

NEW YORK: The man widely believed to be the new leader of Daesh was once an informant for the US, according to a new report from the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC), a research body at the US military academy of West Point in New York.

“Stepping Out from the Shadows: The Interrogation of the Islamic State’s Future Caliph” is based on Tactical Interrogation Reports (TIRs) — the paper trail the US military creates when enemy fighters are detained and interrogated — from Al-Mawla’s time in captivity in the late 2000s.

Before his release in 2009, Al-Mawla named 88 extremists involved in terrorist activities, and the information he divulged during his interrogations led US forces in the region to successfully capture or kill dozens of Al-Qaeda fighters, the report claims.

The CTC said it is “highly confident” Al-Mawla became the new leader of Daesh after the previous leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, was killed in a US air raid in Syria in October 2019.

Although Daesh announced that a man called Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashimi Al-Qurashi was Baghdadi’s successor, US officials have also stated that Al-Qurashi’s true identity is actually Al-Mawla — also known as Hajj Abdullah.

Before joining Daesh, Al-Mawla is believed to have been the deputy leader of Al-Qaeda.

While details about the operation resulting in his capture are scarce, the TRIs reveal that he was captured on January 6, 2008.

The following day, US Central Command announced the capture of a wanted individual who “previously served as a judge of an illegal court system involved in ordering and approving abductions and executions.”

In his interrogations, Al-Mawla offered up details of terrorist plots to his interrogators, while minimizing his own involvement. He identified many jihadists by name and offered descriptions of their roles in the terrorist organization and details of their involvement in attacks on US-led coalition forces during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Al-Mawla — a former officer in Saddam Hussein’s army and once Baghdadi’s speechwriter — emerges from the TIRs as a mysterious personality with a vague past, whose ethnicity could not be determined with certainty. The statements in the reports are rife with contradictory elements and open to a wide range of interpretations. As the authors point out in their introduction: “It is incredibly difficult to ascertain whether what Al-Mawla divulges regarding himself or ISI (the forerunner of Daesh) as an organization is true.”

Details of the specific demographics of Al Mawla’s birthplace of Al-Muhalabiyyah in Iraq’s Tal Afar district are sketchy, but it is generally accepted to have a predominantly Turkmen population. The authors of the report point out that some sources have suggested “this could pose legitimacy problems for him because (Daesh) mostly has Arabs in its senior leadership echelons,” but add that at least two other senior members of the group were reported to have been Turkmen.

Al-Mawla also claimed to have avoided pledging allegiance to ISI because he was a Sufi. The report’s authors cast doubt on that claim, given his quick rise to prominence in the terrorist group and the fact that ISI and Daesh branded Sufism as heresy.

But the authors do believe the TRIs give some valuable insights into Al-Mawla’s personality.

“The fact that he detailed activities and gave testimony against (fellow jihadists) suggests a willingness to offer up fellow members of the group to suit his own ends,” they wrote. “The amount of detail and seeming willingness to share information about fellow organization members suggests either a degree of nonchalance, strategic calculation, or resignation on the part of Al-Mawla regarding operational security.

“He appears to have named individuals in some capacity across all levels of the organization, while describing some individuals in some detail,” they continued.

The US Department of Justice has offered a $10million reward for information about Al-Mawla’s identification or location.