Iraq suspends Reuters’ license over coronavirus reporting
WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Iraq announced on Friday that it had suspended the license of the Reuters news agency for three months, following a Reuters report that the Iraqi government was significantly underreporting the number of coronavirus cases in the country.
Baghdad also imposed a $20,000 fine on the news agency.
On Thursday, citing three Iraqi doctors, a health ministry official, and a senior political official, Reuters stated, “Iraq has thousands of confirmed COVID-19 [the formal name for the virus] cases, many times more than the 772 it has publicly reported.”
Reuters said that the doctors’ estimates of the real number of cases ranged from 3,000 to 9,000, with a health ministry official saying that there were over 2,000 confirmed cases in eastern Baghdad alone.
Populism in Iraq: Sadr vs. Sistani
Eastern Baghdad, which includes Sadr City, is overwhelmingly Shia. Although Sadr City encompasses a large area, it is overcrowded, and it is poor.
The area was known as Saddam City until 2003 and the US-led overthrow of Iraq’s Baathist regime. The area is now called after Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, who, in 1999, was assassinated, along with two of his sons, by Saddam Hussein. Muqtada al-Sadr, the Iraqi politician and mercurial cleric, is another of Sadr’s sons.
One major cause of the spread of the coronavirus in Iraq has been religious pilgrimages that have continued, despite the emergence of the highly contagious disease.
On March 17, the Iraqi government ordered a lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus. Iraq’s leading Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, backed the decision, which included closing religious sites to prevent the formation of crowds that could spread the disease, and those mosques associated with Sistani were closed to public worship.
By contrast, Sadr criticized the decision, and mosques associated with his movement remained open.
Musa al-Kadhim is the seventh Shia Imam. He was jailed by the Abbasids and died in prison in 799. Shortly after the government of Iraq announced a lockdown for the country, Shia pilgrims began arriving at the Baghdad shrine where Kadhim is buried on a religious holiday that marks his martyrdom.
Iraqi authorities did not block the pilgrims—and the virus has now spread among them, accounting for the large number of cases in eastern Baghdad.
If the figures given by Reuters are even roughly correct, they suggest that something like a quarter of the country’s coronavirus cases are to be found among the Shia of eastern Baghdad, and, particularly among Sadr’s followers.
Sadr’s Blame Game
In mid-March, Sadr blamed the US for the outbreak of the deadly virus. He was following the lead of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who had suggested that the coronavirus could be a US biological attack—a view strongly denounced by Washington.
However, earlier this week, Sadr offered a different explanation. In a tweet, he suggested that laws legalizing same-sex marriage were responsible for the coronavirus outbreak, and he called “on all governments to repeal this law immediately and without any hesitation.”
Sadr’s tweet received more than 10,000 likes, according to Middle East Eye, but it also prompted sarcastic rebuke from more secular-minded Iraqis.
“Someone take the phone from his hands,” one tweeted in response, while another replied that the coronavirus was “not as dangerous as your statements.”
On Friday, Iraqi announced that it had 48 new cases of coronavirus, bringing its total officially declared cases to 820.
However, even with the latest announcement, Baghdad’s tally of coronavirus cases falls far short of the numbers reported by Reuters. Nor does it deal with the implication that the virus is most concentrated among Baghdad’s impoverished Shia, living on the eastern bank of the Tigris River.
Editing by John J. Catherine