Iraq Country Report

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Eleftheria Kousta (University College London)

The first case of the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Iraq was recorded on February 24, 2020. It occurred in the city of Najaf, where the infected party was a student who had traveled from Iran.1 Since this first case was declared, Iraq, being ravaged by decades of conflict and sanctions, has been by far one of the most ill-equipped countries to adequately respond to the challenges of COVID-19. Apart from a dilapidated and largely privatized healthcare system, the pandemic has also occurred in a time where a volatile political environment has been causing internal fragmentation and has been reviving proxy conflict among superpowers and regional actors.2 Therefore, since resources have been extremely scarce, Iraq initially resorted to responses in the form of curfews and lockdowns. However, once the economic impact of these policies became too difficult to bear, restrictions were relaxed and greater emphasis was placed on the individual’s responsibility to adhere to preventative measures and government guidelines. As of October 14, Iraq is the second country in COVID-19 cases in the region, following Saudi Arabia, and the worst hit in terms of casualties from the virus (case count excludes Iran).3

News of the spread of COVID-19 alarmed a number of nations across the world where globally the first measures to be imposed were border closures. As early as February 2, Iraq banned foreign visitors traveling from China. However, Iraq shares a long border with Iran - the epicenter of the pandemic in the region. Furthermore, deep cultural connections amongst Shia Muslim populations in the two countries has meant large numbers of cross-border activity.4 Therefore, Iraq only suspended flights with Iran on February 20 and set up a crisis cell to coordinate the response of provincial councils, the border authority, and the Health Ministry for combating the virus. More crucially, land borders with Iran and Kuwait, where most inbound passengers are coming from, were only closed on March 15 for all travelers.

Iraq’s closure of its borders with Iran was the hardest to bear since it is Iraq’s biggest trade partner.5 Hence, borders with Iran had to gradually reopen. The Basra and Wasit crossings reopened on July 7, with the Shalamija and Mandali crossings reopened on July 11 and August 8 respectively. On September 8, the Higher Committee for Health and National Safety announced that all land borders would be open for commercial purposes and trade only.6 As of September 20, land borders with Iran reopened for passenger vehicles as well.7

Whilst tourists were banned from entering the country, airports reopened for commercial flights on July 23. With the Najaf-Karbala annual pilgrimage approaching, Iraq had to commit to the enforcement of a ban of those entering the country for purposes of tourism, even due to religious grounds. A total ban on leisure travelers is still enforced as of October 14, which arguably would not amount for the majority of those entering Iraq, except Shia Muslim pilgrims. Yet, despite borders being officially closed and unnecessary travel between provinces banned, there have been indications that compliance was not vigorously enforced. This is due to cross-border movement and scheduled flights continued well into March,8 as well as the failure to monitor returnees and ensure that they would self-isolate or receive testing.9

Just days before the first lockdown, protests were affecting most major cities across Iraq. A strong distrust of authorities by the Iraqi people meant that a government-imposed lockdown or curfew early in the pandemic would have been met with suspicion. The fact that the security forces would be in charge of enforcing regulations, only weeks after assaulting protesters, did not help conspiracy theories from spreading.10 Therefore, in order to emphasize the seriousness of the situation, on March 26, the Iraqi Council of Ministers establishes the Higher Committee for Health and Safety to oversee efforts to combat COVID-19.11

In Iraq, lockdown only became a reality once the first cases were detected, where on March 11, the Najaf province was put on lockdown.12 This was followed by lockdowns in the rest of the major cities of Baghdad, Erbil, and Sulaymaniyah. On March 22, the lockdown became a national policy,13 and was subsequently extended three times until it was finally replaced with a curfew on April 28. However, two total lockdowns were reimposed on Eid al Fitr and Eid al Adha, which are the two most important holidays in the Islamic calendar. Sporadic lockdowns were also re-enforced in some high-risk provinces, cities, and districts. As of October 7, curfew was totally lifted in federal Iraq but remains in the Kurdish Autonomous Regions.14 Also, the ban on unnecessary travel across provinces was lifted on September 20.

Crucially, whilst the lockdowns and curfews were enacted, the policies on health testing and monitoring were significantly lacking. The only comprehensive health testing policies recorded are conditional to outbound and inbound travelers and diplomatic delegations. Initially, countries were separated into categories A and B according to the risk factor. Those at A would quarantine at government facilities whilst those at B would sign an agreement to self-isolate at home for 14 days. This policy was for repatriated Iraqis, as foreign travelers were banned from entering with the exception of diplomats. Since July 6, there has been no distinction between groups A and B, and all inbound travelers are required to self-isolate for 14 days at home.

Iraq has been unable to assign an adequate number of quarantine facilities, whilst its healthcare system is struggling to gather all necessary resources to fight the spread of the virus and treat those who have contracted it. At the start of the pandemic, there was only one testing lab in Baghdad, and only recently the number reached six.15 Other health-related policies have also been assigned as the responsibility of the individual to abide by, such as relying on patients’ self-presenting at designated hospitals.16 However due to lack of sanitation capacities, hospitals are being perceived as an incubator of the virus and a lot of Iraqi people avoid them even if symptomatic.17

Mass gatherings have also been a challenge to restrict in Iraq. The government initially advised on February 25 that Iraqis should avoid public gatherings, and eventually banned all public meetings on March 9. The closure of educational institutions also became a national policy on February 27. However, the advice for places of worship was vaguer, and relied on the people avoiding them with clerics themselves prompting worshippers to follow government guidelines. Despite curfew and lockdown policies, 400,000 people congregated in the Kadhim Shrine in Baghdad to perform an annual pilgrimage.18 Houses of worship were fully reopened on September 20.

While months of political mobilization and protests were suddenly hampered due to the pandemic, the Iraqi people fought hard to keep the movement going. Hence after the lockdown was lifted and replaced with a curfew, in May, protesters resumed the occupation of public spaces.19 Under these circumstances, social distancing was difficult to enforce, where employing the coercive apparatus to suppress protesters, as was done before, would only add insult to the injury. Hence the Prime Minister resorted to the language of pacifism.20 On September 20, the Government of Iraq lifted restrictions on public gatherings with social distancing rules remaining in place.21

With restrictions being lifted, awareness campaigns were started in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO) to inform the public of ways they could halt the spread of the virus as individuals. The campaigns ran from August to September and targeted six high-risk districts of Baghdad. They were later extended to Dhi Kar and Basra. The WHO and local grassroots groups did a reasonable job in community outreach for these initiatives. According to the WHO, the public awareness campaigns targeted 15 million people in six governorates.22 However, given the country’s dilapidated infrastructure, overpopulation in the poorest parts of the country, and extremely worrisome shortages of clean water, the question of ‘how can those at the lower social strata observe hygiene and other preventative measures?’ begs an answer.

Therefore, community collective action and grassroots organizing have been pivotal in combating and mitigating the effects of COVID-19.23 For example, the Iraq Information Centre (IIC), a call center that provides information on humanitarian assistance in Iraq to IDPs, returnees, asylum seekers, refugees, as well as vulnerable host community members, has established a COVID-19 dashboard to track calls they receive about challenges related to the impacts of the virus.24

In comparison to the rest of federal Iraq, it is interesting to see how the Autonomous Kurdish Regions are faring. Iraqi Kurdistan authorities took more decisive steps early in the pandemic. Borders with Iran were closed right away in February 24, whilst the rest of federal Iraq only did so on March 15.25 The Kurdish regions were put on lockdown earlier as well on March 18. Other regulations conceiving the cross-province movement and business regulations were more vigorously enforced. As of October 14, the curfew is still in place. The relative success of the Kurdish regions is most likely attributed to the strong social contract between the government and the people, community solidarity, as well as better living standards compared to the rest of federal Iraq.

Evidently, whilst restrictions were in place, COVID-19 transmission rates were significantly lower. In May, however, the curve started to rise again in all federal regions of Iraq and as of September, the country has witnessed the highest spikes since the beginning of the pandemic, with cases recorded amounting to thousands. Whilst the above observation was made based on what the Iraqi Government announced, it is hard to estimate the real numbers. A Reuters investigation in early April based on the allegations of three doctors closely involved in the testing process found that whilst the government had at the time reported only 772 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the doctors claimed that confirmed cases should have been anywhere from 3,000 to 9,000.26 After all, in a country of 40,222,493 as of July 23, only 844,218 tests were carried out.27 Therefore, once the Iraqi Government increased tests in June, cases skyrocketed to almost 12,000 daily cases.28

Iraq’s new Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, was inaugurated on May 7. The resilience of his administration was put to the test from collapsing oil prices, roving militias, economic recession, food and medical supplies shortages, and above all, a disaffected public. With the return of protest movements, thus far, the Prime Minister has chosen a language of pacifism and tried to take a stance on the violence committed against the protestors.29 Crucially, there is a prevailing belief among Iraqis that ‘they have seen worse’,30 and that the dangers of a pandemic don’t override their concerns about economic insecurity and a continuous loop of violent conflict. Therefore, the greatest leap that the government needs to take to combat the pandemic is to bridge differences among communities and restore trust between the authorities and the people. This has been an overdue, decades-long task.

Lastly, as far as Iraq is concerned, domestic factors are not the only variables affecting the pandemic situation. Iraq is already acquainted with the fact that more often than not, international factors have a pivotal and ultimately determining impact on what is going on inside the country. Given the revival of conflict in its territories and the impact this will have on infrastructure and cross-border movement, Iraq will have to make an extreme effort to contain COVID-19.

  1. Kaarlap, Haydar. February 24th, 2020. Anadolu Agency.

  2. Jaafari, Shirin. May 5th, 2020. PRI.

  3. MEED. 2020.

  4. Mohsin, Abdulmeer Hussein. April 7th, 2020. Chatham House,

  5. The Iran Project. September 25th, 2020.

  6. Government of Iraq. September 8th, 2020.

  7. US Embassy in Iraq. September 27th, 2020.

  8. Enabling Peace. April 6th, 2020.

  9. Salem, Abbas Abboud. August 13th, 2020. Washington Institute.

  10. Mohsin, Abdulmeer Hussein. April 7th, 2020. Chatham House,

  11. Salem, Abbas Abboud. August 13th, 2020. Washington Institute.

  12. World Aware. March 2020.

  13. Middle East Eye. March 9th, 2020.

  14. GARDA, September 26th, 2020.

  15. Mikhael, Ehab Mudher and Al-Jumaili, Ali Azeez. March 26th, 2020. NCBI.

  16. Mohsin, Abdulmeer Hussein. April 7th, 2020. Chatham House

  17. Hannah, John. July 6th, 2020. FDD.

  18. Mehdi, Zainab. May 5th, 2020. Iraqi Economists.

  19. Middle East Monitor. May 11th, 2020.

  20. Al-Rubaie, Azhar. May 15th, 2020.

  21. US Embassy in Iraq. September 27th, 2020.

  22. World Health Organization. September 9th, 2020.

  23. Bacon, David. April 8th, 2020. The Nation.

  24. Relief Web. April 9th, 2020.

  25. Enabling Peace. April 6th, 2020.

  26. Reuters. April 2nd, 2020.

  27. Xinhua. July 23rd, 2020.

  28. Hannah, John. July 6th, 2020. FDD.

  29. Al-Rubaie, Azhar. May 15th, 2020. Middle East Eye.

  30. Enabling Peace. April 6th, 2020.