image Photo: Reuters

Iraq begins food distribution amid political uncertainty

The fatality rate of the coronavirus in Iraq has reached 80, with a total of 1,434 confirmed cases. Health officials say disease was first brought to Iraqi cities with large Shiite populations through Iranian pilgrims.

A countrywide lockdown has been imposed by Iraqi authorities in a bid to stem the spread of the pandemic, including the closure of schools and most stores.

The economy has been heavily-impacted in the war-torn country, and food is now being distributed to those on the edge of hunger. In the capital city of Baghdad’s Tariq District, consisting mainly of low income families, the supplies were delivered by the Federal Police Department.

Iraq has also been immersed in political turmoil, as it struggles to replace a government that fell last year after months of deadly protests. President Barham Salih nominated Intelligence chief Mustafa al-Kadhimi as Prime Minister-Designate on 9 April, after the previous candidate Adnan al-Zurfi stepped down after failing to secure enough support to pass a government. Kadhimi’s naming marked the third such appointment in just 10 weeks,

The new Prime Minister-Designate is seen as a political independent. He served as Director of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service since 2016, during which time the agency was viewed as performing a key role in Baghdad’s battle against the Islamic State terror group. His next challenge will be to garner sufficient backing from the powerful sectarian parties that dominate Iraq’s legislature to approve a cabinet within a month. Iraq, exhausted by decades of sanctions, war and political corruption now faces economic ruin, social unrest and a growing outbreak of the novel coronavirus, all of which it must face with only a caretaker cabinet.

In a press statement on the political situation in Iraq sent to TV7, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Secretary of State Pompeo said: “The United States looks forward to the formation of a new Iraqi Government capable of confronting the COVID-19 pandemic, ameliorating the country’s current economic distress, and bringing arms under state control.” He then said that Washington “welcomes” an apparent agreement among Iraq’s Shia, Sunni and Kurdish groups to form a new government and “hopes the new government puts Iraq’s interests first and meets the needs of the Iraqi people.”

Secretary Pompeo underscored, “The Iraqi people demand genuine reform and trustworthy leaders.  These demands deserve to be addressed without violence or suppression.  We stand with the Iraqi people as they seek a sovereign, prosperous Iraq, free of corruption and terror.”

Pompeo’s statements come after a perceived warning from Iraqi Prime Minister-Designate Kadhimi against attempts by foreign powers – in what analysts believe was veiled reference to Iran and the United States – to exploit his nation’s woes in their own best interests. “Sovereignty is a red line. We will never do a courtesy at the expense of Iraq’s sovereignty. And we won’t concede from Iraq and Iraqis’ dignity,” he said in a televised address.

 Meanwhile, the State Department’s top diplomat for the Middle East said that Iranian-backed militia pose a “significant” threat to U.S. forces in Iraq. David Schenker, the Assistant Secretary of Near Eastern Affairs, made the statement yesterday; about a week after U.S. President Donald Trump warned of an attack by Iran or its proxies. The U.S. leader warned that Iran and its proxies would pay a “very heavy price” for any such assault – but gave no details.

Schenker also declined to divulge any specifics about the threat posed by Iran, but told reporters in a teleconference that “it continues to be significant.” Last month, Schenker said that Washington was “enormously disappointed” by Iraq’s performance in protecting U.S.-led coalition forces. “It is on the Iraqis – if they value that relationship – to take certain steps and that includes providing protection to the coalition forces who are in Iraq, if they want those forces to remain,” he said.

Iran-backed paramilitary groups have regularly been shelling bases in Iraq that host U.S. forces, and the area around the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. This past Monday, three Katyusha rockets landed near a district in southern Iraq that houses workers for foreign oil companies, including the American oil service company Halliburton. No casualties or damage were reported.

Relations between Washington and Tehran have been exceptionally bitter since the Islamic Revolution toppled the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran in 1979, and ushered in an era of theocratic rule by Shi’ite clerics known as “Ayatollahs.” While there was a brief detente with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal under the administration of former U.S. President Barack Obama, relations have deteriorated with Trump’s decision nearly two years ago to abandon that international agreement and reimpose U.S. sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy.

Tensions worsened even further early this year when a 3 January U.S. drone strike in Iraq killed Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. It also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who founded Iraq’s Shi’ite Kataib Hezbollah militia after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States proposed a ‘Strategic Dialogue’ with Iraq to be held in June, a bid to restore strained bilateral ties.

Meanwhile, the ongoing international battle to achieve an ultimate defeat against the Islamic State terror group (also known as ISIS or Daesh) in both Iraq and Syria.

According to a press release sent to TV7 by the Office of the State Department’s Spokesperson, the Political Directors of the Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh/ISIS [the Islamic State] Small Group held a virtual meeting yesterday, “to reaffirm our shared commitment to continue the fight against Daesh/ISIS and maintain unity of purpose and cohesiveness in Iraq and Syria.”

The statement continued to reveal that the Political Directors “agreed to maintain maximum pressure on Daesh/ISIS despite the several and multifaceted challenges, including those posed by the COVID-19 pandemic in order to achieve the enduring defeat of the terrorist group in Iraq and Syria, and to remain vigilant against the threat of Daesh/ ISIS around the world.” They also agreed “upon the importance of maintaining and allocating adequate military and civilian means and resources to sustain Coalition efforts in Iraq and Syria, including providing support to legitimate partner forces, in order to safeguard our collective security efforts.”

The statement stressed that “the Political Directors agreed that Operation Inherent Resolve’s training role, temporarily suspended due to the pandemic, will resume as conditions permit;” and “while maintaining the importance of guaranteeing the sovereignty of Iraq, also stressed the importance of increasing our various forms of assistance and stabilization support to liberated areas.”

The “need to remain focused on the Coalition’s civilian and military lines of effort in the areas of Communications; Foreign Terrorist Fighters; Stabilization; Countering ISIS Financing; and, Political Military Coordination, and encouraged Working Group members to connect virtually to continue their vital work” was emphasized, and the statement concluded with the Political Directors expression of “unwavering solidarity and determination in the fight against Daesh/ISIS in Iraq and Syria during the current global health crisis,” saying that they “look forward to the next full Ministerial meeting of the Global Coalition in Italy as soon as conditions allow.”