Coronavirus outbreak compounds Iraq’s perfect storm of crises

Coronavirus outbreak compounds Iraq’s perfect storm of crises
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Anti-government demonstrations erupted in Baghdad on Oct. 1 over a lack of jobs, poor public services and corruption. Protesters have long-demanded a snap election, putting added pressure on the beleaguered government. (AFP)
Coronavirus outbreak compounds Iraq’s perfect storm of crises
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As Iraq faces several severe crises simultaneously, some see the makings of a perfect storm that could prove too much for Iraq’s dysfunctional government to handle. (AFP)
Coronavirus outbreak compounds Iraq’s perfect storm of crises
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Iraqis protest in Bagdhdad's Tahrir square on Feb. 25, 2020, to demand the resignation of the national leadership. (SABAH ARAR / AFP)
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Updated 30 March 2020

Coronavirus outbreak compounds Iraq’s perfect storm of crises

Coronavirus outbreak compounds Iraq’s perfect storm of crises
  • Rising cases puts weak healthcare system under pressure amid political turmoil and economic uncertainty
  • More than 500 infections and at least 40 deaths have been reported so far in different governorates

ERBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan: As Iraq faces several severe crises simultaneously, some see the makings of a perfect storm that could prove too much for Iraq’s dysfunctional government to handle.

An unchecked outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) could prove the proverbial last straw for a country grappling with political turmoil, dwindling oil revenues, deteriorating government services and geopolitical skirmishing.

“Iraq is on the cusp of melting down,” Nicholas Heras, the Middle East Portfolio Manager at The Institute for the Study of War, told Arab News.

“The Iraqi state institutions were already collapsing before the fall in oil prices, and Iraq’s health infrastructure is too much in shambles to handle a big surge in COVID-19 cases.”

The country had reported 506 cinfirmed cases and 42 deaths as of March 29.

Heras attributes Iraq’s particular vulnerability to these crises to the rampant corruption that has prevailed in the country’s post-2003 political establishment.

“Iraq is on the verge of being a failed state,” he said.

The fall in the international price of oil will hit the Iraqi economy hard. Iraq depends on its oil revenues to fund its bloated public sector payroll, which many Iraqis rely upon for their livelihood.

The steep decline in the price of oil means it will not be able to do that.

FASTFACT

In Numbers

13 Iraq’s Fragile States Index rank (out of 178)

5.5% Health expenditure as fraction of GDP

27 Probability of dying under 5 years (per 1,000 births)

68 Life expectancy at birth (Male)

72 Life expectancy at birth (Female)

This closely coincided with another series of crises that have afflicted this country in the first three months of this decade alone.

Iraqis mounted an unprecedented six-month-long protest campaign that began last October against government corruption that has been endemic in the post-2003 political order.

Furthermore, political disputes have left the country without a prime minister since Adil Abdul-Mahdi resigned four months ago amid pressure from protesters.

Three weeks ago, Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi was nominated but failed to secure approval from parliament and was rejected by the protest movement.

Adnan al-Zurfi, former governor of Najaf, is the present prime minister-designate but faces stiff opposition from Iran-backed factions in the Iraqi parliament.

Joel Wing, an Iraq analyst and author of the Musings on Iraq blog, also believes that Iraq is facing a very severe set of crises which he believes spell disaster for the troubled country.

“On the political front, the ruling parties have been unable to agree upon a new prime minister which leaves the government completely in limbo,” he said.

“There is no leadership when that is exactly what the nation needs.”

The collapse in oil prices not only means that the Iraqi government will be unable to pay public sector salaries but is also incapable of meeting other basic costs.

“Because of the government crisis, there is no planning going on for this situation,” Wing said.

“Instead, you get people like the Central Bank chief saying everything is fine, and parliament is sitting on the draft 2020 budget.”

On top of this, Iraq also has to deal with the COVID-19 global pandemic.

Wing echoed Heras when he pointed out that Baghdad lacks any way of dealing with it, given the present political and economic situation.

Even if it does have a plan, he added, it might well lack the money to implement it.

“This is a perfect storm which the country will find it very hard to pull itself out of, especially because all three issues are interconnected,” he said.

Aside from Daesh remnants still operating on its soil and continuing to pose a security threat, Iraq would likely become a major battlefield if war breaks out between the US and Iran.

The US-Iran standoff in Iraq has shown worrying signs of boiling over into open conflict in recent months.




A purpose-built sealed hospital bed built by a resident of Iraq's southern city of Basra to isolate COVID-19 coronavirus disease patients. (Photo by Hussein FALEH / AFP)

After the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah Iraqi militia killed a US contractor in a rocket attack in late December, the US retaliated, killing several members of the group’s militia in airstrikes.

Then, on Jan. 8, the US assassinated both Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ extraterritorial Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Kataib Hezbollah’s commander, in a drone strike near Baghdad International Airport.

Iran responded with missile strikes on two US bases, one in Anbar and the other in Iraqi Kurdistan, a few days later, leaving several US troops with brain injuries.

The US did not respond.

Calls for the expulsion of US troops from Iraq intensified by Iran-backed factions in Iraq’s parliament and other Iraqis who fear their country becoming a bloody battlefield in the US-Iran proxy war.

On March 11, Iraqi militia rocket attacks again struck a base with US personnel – killing two American troops and one British troop – and the US once again retaliated by bombing a Kataib Hezbollah target.

However, that airstrike did not seem to inflict any casualties or significant damage against the group.




An Iraqi Civil Defense worker disinfects the streets of Sadr City in Baghdad on March 24, 2020 as a precaution against the coronavirus. (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP)

More tit-for-tat exchanges could occur in the near future, which would likely make the situation in Iraq even more volatile.

Lawk Ghafuri, a reporter on Iraqi affairs for the Kurdish news agency Rudaw, argues that the US-Iran tensions in Iraq constitute the most serious crisis facing Iraq today.

“US-Iran tensions are here to stay, as we now see new Iranian-backed groups are rising in Iraq,” Ghafuri told Arab News.

He noted that the US recently began to reposition its troops in Iraq so they can deal with the increasingly deadly threat of rocket attacks from these groups more adequately.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus outbreak is likely to affect Iraq more seriously in the near future.

“From today onward, the coronavirus will also worsen in Iraq as it did in Iran because people are ignoring the threats of this virus,” Ghafuri said.

Turning a blind eye to government restrictions, Shiite pilgrims visited the shrine of Imam Musa Kazim on March 21, sparking fears that the virus will spread more rapidly in the coming days and weeks.

Kyle Orton, an independent Middle East analyst, notes that the multiple crises Iraq face today put the country in a “uniquely precarious position.”

“If the post-2003 Iraqi state is going to give way, now is the moment,” he told Arab News.

That being said, Orton also believes that there is still a chance that “the centre will hold” since the protest movement has been significantly undermined by Iranian-backed paramilitaries and the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, relieving that primary source of domestic pressure on the Iraqi government.




An Iraqi woman wearing a mask against COVID-19 sells vegetables in the streets of Sadr City in Baghdad on March 24, 2020. (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP)

He also doubts that the US is seriously contesting Iranian power in Iraq despite Soleimani’s assassination, which he said it was “an exception” to US President Donald Trump’s rule of not forcibly combating “Iranian imperialism” in Iraq.

“A US-Iran contest for Baghdad could be messy for the system; unhindered Iranian dominance has a short-term systemic ‘stability’, even as it means greater corruption and repression that will surely re-energize the protest movement at some point in the future,” Orton said.

The inherent failures in Iraq’s post-2003 political system may bring about its downfall as it is failing to meet the most fundamental needs of the Iraqi people.

Wing explained that this system mainly consisted of elites who had a greater interest in enriching themselves through the monopolization of state resources.

These elites were able to retain their hold on power by creating patronage networks that they provided lucrative contracts and government jobs to in return for support and loyalty.

“The oil wealth also allowed the ruling parties not to be responsive to the public because it didn’t need it for taxes even though the country has a democratic system,” he said.

“Instead, the elite felt that the people should be dependent upon them because they controlled the state and jobs.”

This arrangement may well be unraveling since the government can no longer generate enough oil revenue to pay its employees.

Wing also noted that this comes as “it is being called on to deal with the public’s health when it has never shown any real interest in the people’s demands, and the parties have become so divided they can’t even decide who will rule.”

If the post-2003 political order finally does implode it’s unclear what’s in store for Iraq in the not-too-distant future.


Egypt sends letter to UN Security Council about Renaissance Dam

Egypt sends letter to UN Security Council about Renaissance Dam
Ethiopia began work on the dam in 2011. Egypt and Sudan are calling for a binding and comprehensive deal with Ethiopia that guarantees the rights and interests of all three countries. (AFP/File)
Updated 14 June 2021

Egypt sends letter to UN Security Council about Renaissance Dam

Egypt sends letter to UN Security Council about Renaissance Dam
  • Cairo fears the GERD will threaten its water supply from the Nile

CAIRO: Egypt has sent a letter to the head of the UN Security Council to highlight developments in the Grand Ethopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) dispute, as it and Sudan drafted a resolution about the dam to be presented to Arab foreign ministers next week.

Ethiopia began work on the dam in 2011. Egypt fears the GERD will threaten its water supply from the Nile, while Sudan is concerned about the dam’s safety and its own water flow.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry’s letter to the UN Security Council included the country’s objection to Ethiopia’s intention to continue filling the dam during the upcoming flood season. It also expressed the government’s rejection of Ethiopia seeking to impose a fait accompli on the downstream countries through unilateral measures.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Hafez said the letter aimed to reveal the truth about the intransigent positions Ethiopia was taking as these were stalling the efforts made over the past months to reach a fair, balanced and legally binding agreement on the issue.

HIGHLIGHT

The Council of Arab States, at the level of foreign ministers, is scheduled to hold an extraordinary session in Doha on Tuesday at the request of Egypt and Sudan to discuss developments regarding the dam issue.

Hafez said that an integrated file was also deposited with the UN Security Council to serve as a reference for the international community on the issue, as well as to document the constructive and responsible positions taken by Egypt.
Hossam Zaki, assistant secretary-general of the League of Arab States, said there was an Arab consensus supporting Egypt and Sudan’s rights in the Nile waters and that there was not a single country outside this consensus.
He indicated that Ethiopia’s attempt to “drive a wedge” between Arab and African countries on the Renaissance Dam issue would not succeed.
The Council of Arab States, at the level of foreign ministers, is scheduled to hold an extraordinary session in Doha on Tuesday at the request of Egypt and Sudan to discuss developments regarding the dam issue, he added.
Zaki said the session would be held on the sidelines of the consultative meeting of Arab foreign ministers that was being held in Doha.
Egypt and Sudan are calling for a binding and comprehensive deal that guarantees the rights and interests of all three countries.


Greece says Turkish patrol boat damaged coast guard vessel

Greece says Turkish patrol boat damaged coast guard vessel
This handout picture released on January 29, 2020, by the Turkish Defence Ministry Press Service shows migrants in a rubber boat rescued by Turkish navy soldiers on January 28, 2020, off the Libyan coast. (AFP)
Updated 14 June 2021

Greece says Turkish patrol boat damaged coast guard vessel

Greece says Turkish patrol boat damaged coast guard vessel
  • Greece in April had accused Turkey of seeking to “provoke an escalation” in the Aegean with “dangerous” maneuvers and illegal assistance to migrants

ATHENS: The Greek coast guard said that one of its patrol vessels was “harassed” by a Turkish patrol boat on Sunday, causing minor damage, a day before the Greek and Turkish leaders hold talks in Brussels.
There were no injuries in the incident, which occurred east of the Aegean island of Lesbos, the coast guard said in a statement.
It said “a patrol vessel of the Turkish coast guard harassed a patrol boat of the Lesbos coast guard, causing minor damage.”
Such incidents are common in the Aegean Sea during patrols for boats carrying migrants from Turkey to Greece.

SPEEDREAD

• A patrol vessel of the Turkish coast guard ‘harassed a patrol boat of the Lesbos coast guard, causing minor damage.’

• Such incidents are common in the Aegean Sea during patrols for boats carrying migrants from Turkey to Greece.

• Greece had accused Turkey of seeking to ‘provoke an escalation’ in the Aegean with ‘dangerous’ maneuvers and illegal assistance to migrants.

Greece in April had accused Turkey of seeking to “provoke an escalation” in the Aegean with “dangerous” maneuvers and illegal assistance to migrants.
Athens wants Ankara to better police migration routes and take back hundreds of asylum seekers found ineligible for refugee protection.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is to hold talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Brussels.
Mitsotakis said on Friday that good bilateral relations will depend on de-escalation efforts and on whether “Turkey participates constructively in the dialogue and respects the conditions set by the EU” in accordance with international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.


Algeria awaits results after voters snub elections

Algeria awaits results after voters snub elections
Algerian elections staff count ballots for parliamentary elections at a polling station in Bouchaoui, on the western outskirts of the capital Algiers, on June 12, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 14 June 2021

Algeria awaits results after voters snub elections

Algeria awaits results after voters snub elections
  • The movement has urged boycotts of all national polls since it mobilized hundreds of thousands of people in early 2019 to force longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his cronies from power

Algeria on Sunday awaited the results of a parliamentary election boycotted by the long-running Hirak protest movement and marked by widespread abstention.
Turnout was just 30.2 percent, electoral commission chief Mohamed Chorfi announced after Saturday’s vote — the lowest in a legislative poll at least 20 years.
He said it would be “96 hours” before official results are announced.
Fewer than 1 percent of registered voters cast their ballots in Kabylie, a mainly Berber region east of Algiers, and the cities of Bejaia and Tizi Ouzou.
“As expected, the majority of Algerians snubbed the ballot boxes. The low turnout confirms the strong trend toward rejecting the vote,” read the front page of French-language daily Liberte.
President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, himself elected on an official turnout of less than 40 percent in late 2019, put a brave face on the figures.
“For me, the turnout isn’t important. What’s important is whether the lawmakers that the people elect have enough legitimacy,” the president said.
The Hirak protest movement, which apart from a hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic had held twice-weekly demonstrations for reform until they were effectively banned last month, rejected the polls as a “sham.”
The movement has urged boycotts of all national polls since it mobilized hundreds of thousands of people in early 2019 to force longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his cronies from power.
But voting day was mainly calm, except in Kabylie, where ballot boxes were ransacked and security forces detained dozens of people, rights groups said.
Two prominent journalists detained on the eve of the election and released Saturday, Khaled Drareni and Ihsane El Kadi, condemned their “arbitrary” arrests.
“I believe you have the right to know that two journalists ... were subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention for no apparent reason,” Drareni wrote on his Facebook page.


IRC denounces deadly attack on Syria hospital

IRC denounces deadly attack on Syria hospital
A member of Syria’s Civil Defence service inspects the damage caused by the shelling at Al-Shifaa hospital in Afrin, Syria. (AFP)
Updated 14 June 2021

IRC denounces deadly attack on Syria hospital

IRC denounces deadly attack on Syria hospital
  • Saturday’s attack on the opposition-held northern town of Afrin killed at 21 people

BEIRUT: The International Rescue Committee on Sunday condemned the shelling on the Syrian city of Afrin that put a hospital out of service and killed civilians and medical staff.

Saturday’s attack on the opposition-held northern town killed at least 21 people, mostly in shelling on the hospital, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor.
“We utterly condemn this deadly attack on Al-Shifaa Hospital, one of the largest medical facilities in northern Syria,” said IRC’s Syria director Wolfgang Gressmann.
“This is the 11th attack on healthcare that has been recorded so far this year, and brings the total number of verified attacks on healthcare since January 2019 to 124.”
Of the 21 killed, 17 were civilians, including at least 4 hospital staff members, the Observatory said, adding that 23 people were also wounded.
The IRC said the attack completely destroyed the emergency room and the labor and delivery room.

This is the 11th attack on healthcare that has been recorded so far this year.

Wolfgang Gressmann, Syria director of IRC

“The hospital is now out of service,” the statement said. “It is vital that these attacks stop.”
According to the Observatory, Saturday’s artillery fire originated from northern Aleppo province where militias backing Iran and the Syrian regime are deployed near a region run by Kurdish forces. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) issued a statement denying any involvement in the shelling.
The Afrin region, like all areas held by pro-Turkish rebels, regularly witnesses targeted killings, bombings and shootings.
The conflict in Syria has killed nearly 500,000 people since it started in 2011 with the brutal repression of peaceful demonstrations.
Separately, the Lebanese army on Sunday said it intercepted a small boat carrying 11 people, mostly Syrians, attempting an illegal sea crossing out of the crisis-hit country. A statement said a naval force spotted the boat off the northern port city of Tripoli and that its passengers were all detained and referred for investigation, the army added.
The boat was carrying “10 people of Syrian nationality and a Lebanese national,” it said.
Their journey’s end was not specified but neighboring Cyprus, a member of the European Union, has been a popular sea smuggling destination in recent months.
In May, the Lebanese army intercepted a boat near Tripoli carrying 60 people, including 59 Syrians.
Lebanon, home to more than 6 million people, says it hosts more than a million Syrian refugees.
They have been hit hard by widening poverty rates and growing food insecurity brought on by the country’s economic crisis.

 


Netanyahu ‘might be down but he’s not out’

Netanyahu ‘might be down but he’s not out’
(L to R) Israel's outgoing PM Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with his successor incoming Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 13, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 13 June 2021

Netanyahu ‘might be down but he’s not out’

Netanyahu ‘might be down but he’s not out’
  • Celebrations by Netanyahu’s opponents to mark the end of his premiership began outside his official residence in Jerusalem, the site of weekly protests for the past year

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year hold on power ended on Sunday after a parliamentary vote on a new coalition government headed by a right-wing hawk.

Embattled Netanyahu earlier vowed that “if it’s our destiny to be in the opposition, we’ll do so with our heads high until we take down this bad government and return to lead the country our way.”

Khaled Elgindy, nonresident fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, told Arab News: “Netanyahu might be down but he’s not out.”

Elgindy said Netanyahu and his supporters “will do everything they can to bring down this highly fragile (new) government whether it takes a week, a month or a year.”

The new Cabinet was cobbled together by centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid and ultranationalist Naftali Bennett.

The latter, a hawkish hi-tech millionaire, is likely to serve as prime minister for two years before former TV host Lapid takes over.

Wadi Abunassar, director of the Haifa-based International Center for Consultation, told Arab News that it is difficult to talk of the “end of the Netanyahu era” because he is expected to be the leader of an aggressive opposition.

“Many things could happen in the Israeli political arena, including the collapse of the Bennett-Lapid government,” said Abunassar.

Celebrations by Netanyahu’s opponents to mark the end of his premiership began outside his official residence in Jerusalem, the site of weekly protests for the past year.

Dimitri Diliani, spokesman for the Democratic Reform Current — a Palestinian movement — told Arab News that the new Israeli government was not born out of a struggle between pro- and anti-peace camps.

“In general, both the previous government and the newly sworn-in one are in favor of expanding settlements and further Israelization of Palestinian Jerusalem, and against the two-state solution,” he said. “Palestinians aren’t placing any hope or expecting any change in policies concerning them.”

Bennett, a former defense minister, has promised that “Israel won’t let Iran have nuclear weapons.”

But Netanyahu said “Iran is celebrating” the prospect of a “dangerous” and weak new government.

It is the most unusual of coalitions, spanning the spectrum of Israeli Zionist parties and including Ra’am, an Arab party.

Mansour Abbas, head of Ra’am, succeeded in getting $16 billion pledged for Arab communities and recognition of a number of Bedouin towns in southern Israel.

Aaron David Miller, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Arab News: “From his perspective, Netanyahu’s most stunning achievement was his success in expanding Israel’s relations in Asia, Africa, Latin America and with great powers, while expanding settlements and putting the Palestinian issue in the deep freeze.”