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Homeland Security

Coronavirus Is 'Break, Not Defeat', Iraqi Activists Say

By Heather Murdock, Halan Akoiy April 17, 2020

We first met Ali Almikdam in late January. Along with thousands of others, he had been living in a tent in Baghdad's Tahrir Square for about four months, protesting the government.

"We will never stop our demonstrations," he told us as we whipped through the square in a yellow Tuk-tuk. It was lined with colorful tents and adorned with Iraqi flags. Loudspeakers blasted a song that said "We will stay!"

It was the largest homegrown political movement in Iraq's modern history, but the coronavirus has nearly shut it down, along with almost everything else. And in cities all over the country, locals say the problems in Iraq that sparked the movement have only become more glaring as the pandemic drags on.

At the moment, only a smattering of protesters remain in Tahrir Square tents, maintaining the physical presence of the movement and trying to stay clean and healthy.

Mass demonstrations may return to the streets when the coronavirus subsides, said Almikdam and other protesters. But this time, he added, they will be more organized and better prepared. Besides coronavirus, the last round of protests were growing increasingly dangerous, and he has received death threats, said Almikdam.

"When this is over, the government will have to listen to the streets," he explained on the phone from an undisclosed location in Iraq on Wednesday. "If there is not real reform we will come back stronger and set tight deadlines."

Poverty and corruption

Protesters in Baghdad and cities across Iraq had many demands, but none so desperate as the call for relief from extreme poverty, which they often blame on corruption.

Young men, many unemployed, across the country moved into tents, defending the squares and bridges they occupied, sometimes with their lives. Hundreds of protesters were killed and tens of thousands were injured.

Like many countries, Iraq's economy is now shut down, and people who were making barely enough to live on are scared.

"I haven't worked for a month," said Haider Aboud, a 41-year-old driver in Baghdad. "Even families that have some money won't have it for a long time."

In the northern city of Mosul, an Islamic State stronghold from 2014 to 2017, residents say the war against the militants has left them incapable of financially sustaining the lockdown.

Before the battles, many families in Mosul owned homes. Now, entire sections of the city are still reduced to rubble and families rent apartments.

"No one is allowed on the streets after 2 p.m.," said Sroor Al Hussein, a nurse who volunteers at a hospital preparing to accept COVID-19 patients in Mosul. "If people cannot go to work, how can they pay their rents?"

Failing health system

Even before the pandemic, Iraq's hospital system was in crisis: short on doctors, medicine and facilities. And what they do have available, many people cannot afford.

"They say if you go to a hospital here sick, you may come out dead," a friend in Baghdad told me in January, almost a month before Iraq identified its first COVID-19 case. At the time, protesters were clashing with security forces or militia groups almost every night, and many complained they could not afford basic health care.

As of April 17, the Iraqi government has counted 1,434 cases of COVID-19, with 80 deaths. Some reports suggest the numbers could be much higher.

A more widespread outbreak would easily overwhelm the health care system, according to Idris Ziad Mukhtar, a sixth-year medical student in Irbil. While in quarantine, Mukhtar helps man an emergency call-in system that allows potential patients to describe their symptoms and request medical assistance if they are sick.

"The health care [system] cannot stand the increasing number of the coronavirus," he said. "So the best way is to apply protective measures."

International interference and international aid

In January, one protest in Iraq featured a man shouting "Are you American?" to which the crowd roared, "No!"

"Are you Iranian?" he continued.

"No!" they screamed back.

Ending foreign influence in Iraq was another key demand of the protesters. They said besides fighting proxy wars inside their country, foreign powers — especially Iran and the U.S. — control politicians, and choices are made in the interest of those powers, not the Iraqi people.

War and corruption feed poverty and hopelessness, and since the onset of the pandemic, Iraq's poorest people have suffered the most. Roughly three million people are displaced in Iraq, and many live in squalid camps, crowded together with not enough sanitation or space to stop an outbreak if the virus should come in.

Camp authorities argue that the governments that fought the wars that displaced all the people, including Baghdad, should do more to protect the families from COVID-19.

But, they say, there is little hope of that happening.

"Even before this coronavirus we were virtually abandoned by international organizations and Baghdad," said Dastan Mansur, 33, a deputy manager in Khazir, a camp outside of Mosul. "They forgot we needed health care systems."

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