As the coronavirus epidemic spreads across the country, the Turkish economy continues to plummet. On March 3rd, TurkStat announced for February an inflation of 12.37% compared to the same month of 2019, and revealed on the 10th an unemployment of 15-24 years-old at 25% for last December, before indicating on the 20th an increase in unemployment of almost one million over one year, 932.000, to reach 4.469.000 people in 2019...
At the same time, the authorities of the AKP-MHP alliance reacted to the epidemic in their usual way: denials/dissimulation of the seriousness of the situation, lies about their testing capabilities and, above all, repression of whistleblowers. Despite the spread of the epidemic in neighbouring Iran, on the 9th, the Minister of Health still declared that there were no cases in Turkey, while travellers returning from Turkey tested positive in the United States (National Interest)... On the 11th, he announced a first case of CoVid, without specifying either age or location. On the 13th, a second case “related to the first” was announced, and later that day, five more cases were reported. On the same day, the closure of schools and universities was announced, then on the 16th, bars and nightclubs were closed, and air links to nine, then six more countries suspended. The next day, 29 more cases were announced, for a total of 47. The Physicians’ Union of Turkey (TTB), which includes the vast majority of the country’s doctors, warned that the actual number of cases was certainly higher than the official figures. On the 18th, Turkey suffered its first death as the number of officially recorded cases doubled in 24 hours to 98, before jumping again at the end of the day to 191, when a second death was announced...
As it became clear that the virus was circulating far more widely than the power had claimed, the authorities responded with repression. After an investigation against her opened by Ankara University, Dr. Güle Çınar was forced to publish a letter of apology on the 19th after having warned that there could be thousands of infected Turkish pilgrims returning from Saudi Arabia. On the same day, 33 bar associations jointly demanded, in order to avoid an epidemic in the 375 overcrowded prisons in the country, the release of some of the 270.000 prisoners, by suspending their detention or serving it under house arrest. On the 23rd, while flights to 68 countries were suspended, the government did announce a programme to decongest prisons affecting 100.000 prisoners, but excluded all those detained for “terrorism, drugs and sexual assault”, thus giving an indication that it intended to keep in jail all political opponents wrongly convinced with terrorism. The bill was criticised on the 25th in a new joint declaration by 14 bar associations, which called for the release of political prisoners as well.
It was only on the 23rd, announcing 1.236 cases and 30 deaths, that the Minister of Health first reported the number of screening tests performed: 20.345. On the 30th, there were 168 deaths and over 10.000 cases.
If Turkey has not been able to massively deploy the screening tests, it has on the other hand massively repressed the whistleblowers! On the 23rd, dozens of Kurds were arrested in Bingöl and Suruc, and charges were pressed against 316 people following messages about the epidemic on social networks, to the point that İsmet Çiğit, editor-in-chief of a local newspaper in Kocaeli, told Bianet that in the face of state intimidation, he would now limit himself to reproducing official statements. Several users of social networks who had criticised the government’s health management were also arrested in Adana (WKI). HDP MP from Kocaeli and doctor Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu was investigated for “causing fear and panic among the public” after announcing that a 70-year-old Sincan detainee had been diagnosed positive. On the 30th, an investigation for “incitement to hatred” was opened against HDP Diyarbakir MP Remziye Tosun, who had participated in a car tour of the Sur and Yenişehir neighbourhoods during which announcements were broadcast over loudspeakers to incite people to stay at home... and in which the government was blamed for its lack of interest in protecting the population (Bianet). Journalist Nurcan Baysal was also investigated for “incitement to hatred” for her articles on the management of the epidemic in Diyarbakir and the Kurdish provinces of the country. At the same time, the union of APC doctors pointed out the responsibility of the authorities in the spread of the virus because of its mistakes, in particular not having set up a general quarantine against the development of the disease in Iran and not having carried out any tests on the nearly 20.000 pilgrims returning from Saudi Arabia…
Also on the 31st, twenty-seven organisations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), called for the release of imprisoned journalists and human rights defenders. At the end of the month, according to the Interior Ministry, dozens of villages and areas in 18 Turkish provinces were put under quarantine because of the epidemic, but neither in Ankara nor in Istanbul, large urban centres that were probably the most affected.
In this difficult situation, the “pro-Kurdish” HDP party, although it has faced repression, has not ceased to protect the citizens as best it can as an opposition party. On the 13th, the HDP deputy from Mardin Tuma Çelik asked in a parliamentary question to the Minister of Health that information on the virus be disseminated in the regional languages, Kurdish, Arabic and Syriac, for the elderly, at risk, who do not always understand Turkish well. On the 13th, the HDP spokesman called on the government to distribute hygiene products and disinfectants free of charge to the poorest. The HDP also decided the same day to cancel the Newrouz festivities. The HDP Justice and Human Rights Commission also called for the release of elderly, sick prisoners, mothers with children and minors to prevent them from becoming infected. From his cell, Selahattin Demirtaş called for solidarity and cooperation among the population as well as between the state and civil society organizations, adding that “society must be sure that nothing is hidden from it”. On the 25th, HDP Vice President for Economy Garo Paylan unveiled an alternative economic programme to the government’s, criticized for putting the interests of business ahead of protecting the poorest citizens, such as low-wage earners or the unemployed: “Who is protecting [the government’s programme]? The “one percenters”... 99 of the 100 billion package goes to the rich, the 1%”. The HDP also called for a halt to the payment of rent, interest on bank loans, water and electricity charges during the epidemic, that aid to businesses be made conditional on a ban on laying-offs, the maintenance of salaries for those who have to stop work with 50% support from the state, unconditional unemployment benefits, and the payment of a domestic salary to women who have to look after their children who had to stop going to school...
However, the development of the epidemic has not stopped the repression. On the 9th, the dismissed co-Mayor of Diyarbakir, Dr. Selçuk Mızraklı, was sentenced to nine years in prison for terrorism. On the 12th, the co-Mayor of Cizre, Berivan Kutlu, was incarcerated in a raid on her home. On the 23rd, the HDP mayors of five Kurdish municipalities were detained. The Ministry of Interior reported that eight HDP mayors were dismissed on suspicion of belonging to a terrorist group and replaced by administrators. According to the communiqué, four mayors have been detained and an arrest warrant issued for a fifth, while three others are under investigation. The HDP said: “Our municipal buildings in Silvan, Ergani, Lice, Eğil and Batman have been cordoned off and searched. During house raids, our Batman co-mayors Mehmet Demir and Songül Korkmaz, the co-mayor of Silvan Naşide Toprak, Ergani Ahmet Kaya, of Eğil Mustafa Akkul, the dismissed co-mayor of Yenişehir Belgin Diken, the deputy co-mayors of Batman Şehriban Aydın and Salih Çetinkaya, the co-mayors of the Batman Municipal Council Şükran Çelebi and Recep Yargı were incarcerated”. The HDP elected representatives of Güroymak District (Bitlis) and the towns of Gökçebağ (Siirt) and Iğdır (Halfeli) were also dismissed and replaced. The administrator appointed to replace the mayor of Batman hastened to have the pages in Kurdish removed from the municipality’s website. The HDP’s foreign affairs committee denounced these dismissals, declaring: “Instead of fighting against the coronavirus, the AKP is fighting against the Kurds”.
In almost exactly one year since the last municipal elections, the Turkish government has now dismissed a total of 40 elected officials. The Hasankeyf Coordination, which is fighting against the dam that has begun to flood the city, stated on the 24th that the installation of pro-AKP administrators in Batman was directly linked to the Ilisu Dam, as the dismissed elected officials had repeatedly expressed their concerns about the social and sanitary consequences of the project, including the discharge of untreated sewage into the reservoir and the possible mass displacement of uprooted people: “The administrator was appointed less than 12 hours after the municipality of Batman decided to postpone the payment of water bills”...
The following other news should not go unnoticed despite the fact that media space is quite monopolised by the epidemic: nearly five years after the murder of the President of the Diyarbakir Bar Tahir Elçi on 28 November 2015, four suspects were charged on 27 March, including three police officers (the fourth suspect is also accused of killing two other policemen); several journalists who covered the situation of refugees on the border with Greece at the beginning of the month, including Iraqi Kurdish TV reporter Rûdaw Rawin Sterk, were arrested for “terrorist propaganda”. Also noteworthy is the forced hospitalisation on the 11th of two Grup Yorum artists on hunger strike at home, Helin Bölek and İbrahim Gökçek, and the arrest on the 12th for “terrorism” of at least nine lawyers in Urfa and Diyarbakir.
Finally, on the 9th, the philanthropist and businessman Osman Kavala was the target of a new indictment, if possible even more ludicrous than all the previous ones: this time he is accused of “espionage”. The Turkish authorities are clearly beginning to run out of inventions to keep him in detention...
Exacerbated by corruption and sanctions, the economic difficulties faced by Iranians particularly affect the peripheral provinces, neglected since long by the authorities. In Iranian Kurdistan, for example, the number of young people with no choice but to work as cross-border porters, or kolbars, is constantly increasing. According to Mabsur Muradi, representative of Mariwan, unemployment in Kurdistan of Iran is around 50%, with an inflation rate of more than 45%. The KHRN (Kurdistan Human Rights Network) reported that in 2019, 57 of these kolbars had been shot down by border guards or security forces, 29 others had died in accidents, falls, avalanches or mines, sometimes while trying to escape from the police, and 66 had been injured. With the crisis, people are now coming from towns up to 150 km from the border to take up this dangerous work, which became illegal in 2017. In 2020, eight porters have already been killed and more than 20 injured, and another 40 were victims of accidents. At present, porters are also faced with the coronavirus epidemic, as a result of which the Kurdistan Regional Government of neighbouring Iraq has closed its borders with Iran (Al-Monitor). In the first week of March, one carrier was killed and one injured and two of them fell into a ravine in Hawraman, and the following week another one died and one was injured, while another froze to death near Khoy (WKI).
Regarding the epidemic, while on March 2, Iranian Health Minister Alireza Raissi announced a dizzying increase in the number of cases with 1.501 positive cases and 66 deaths, many witnesses speak of even higher figures. At least 16 Kurds were diagnosed positive and a 55-year-old woman died on 1st March in Saqqez. Dr. Abdolreza Fazel, Head of the Golestan province health agency, counted 594 cases in his province alone, and a Gilan MP, Imanabadi, said that hospitals were saturated in Rasht: this makes the national figures (Radio Farda), which Imanabadi indeed called a “joke” (Le Monde), not very credible. In Urumieh, according to the Kurdish human rights organisation Hengaw, a prisoner died in his cell from CoVid, and families of prisoners demonstrated outside the prison to demand the release on parole of their relatives (WKI). On the 8th, the New York Times noted that the country had the highest number of deaths outside China at the time, including a senior adviser to the Supreme Leader, one of the country’s vice-presidents, 23 members of parliament, the Vice Minister of Health and several other senior officials. Recalling the high quality of Iran’s health care system, the paper noted that many lives could have been saved if the government had adopted an attitude different from denial.
Even according to official figures, it soon became clear on the 9th that the epidemic was exploding when 237 deaths were reported out of 7.161 cases: 595 new cases had been diagnosed within 24 hours, while the authorities were still refusing to reveal the number of deaths in Tehran, in Qom, the first identified outbreak, and Gilan. Hengaw reported at least 44 deaths in the Kurdish provinces of Kermanshah, Ilam, Kurdistan and Western Azerbaijan. Prisoners in Urumieh went on strike due to the inaction of the prison administration. The pro-Ruhani website Entekhab announced more than 2.000 deaths and called on the ministry to reveal the real figures. Faced with estimates without sources and so far apart, Radio Farda attempted a calculation based on figures taken from statements by various provincial authorities and arrived at between 477 and 519 deaths by the morning of the 9th. It seems that the authorities are lowering the figures by counting only those deaths confirmed by coroners and not those from hospitals, which could be two to three times higher, especially as the number of bodies to be examined would exceed the capacity of the doctors. On the 16th, again using regional data, Radio Farda calculated that at least 1.300 people had died and 32.000 had been admitted to hospitals in 30 of the country’s 31 provinces, roughly the double of official figures (853 deaths and 15.000 cases). At the same time, the hunt for those who dared to criticize the management of the epidemic on social networks began, as evidenced by the arrest on the 12th (reported on the 16th by Courrier International) of Mohammad Mokhtari, captain of the Damash football team, taken by the Etelaat, the intelligence service of the Revolutionary Guards (pasdaran) to the Razi hospital in Rasht, where he was told: “You are doing a live on Instagram. You’re filming all the Guardians and the Basij who work there and you thank them. Then you apologise [for criticising them]”. The weekly also reports that a former member of the Shiraz city council, Mehdi Hojati, has also been detained since 12 March for his criticism.
On the 18th, the Washington Kurdish Institute (WKI) reported a number of 102 deaths in the whole of Iranian Kurdistan, from Hengaw source (provinces of Ilam, Kermanshah, Kurdistan and Western Azerbaijan), and announced that following the explosion in the number of cases in Urumieh prison, prisoners sentenced to five years or less and having already served 15% of their sentence were being released. All Newrouz festivities were cancelled. On the 21st, 966 new cases were officially announced for the whole of Iran for a total of more than 20.000 and 1.566 deaths including 123 in the last 24 hours – Radio Farda still counted more than twice as many with 46.972 cases, including 16.000 for Tehran alone... On the 24th, the number of deaths in Kurdistan was at least 227 (WKI).
On the 30th, one hundred Iranian personalities living outside the country directly accused in an open letter the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei of bearing responsibility in the spread of the epidemic, reproaching him for having turned it into a “national disaster” with the sole aim of maintaining the rate of participation in legislative elections. The text, which also denounced the Guide’s refusal to allocate the billion dollars requested by President Rouhani to fight the epidemic, criticised the latter as well for aligning himself with Khamenei in concealing the seriousness of the disease and attributing it to a “foreign conspiracy”. Among the signatories was, for example, former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) consultant Behrouz Bayat.
At the end of the month, the regime decided to place a number of prisoners on provisional release because of the epidemic, but excluded from the scheme all political prisoners sentenced to long terms. Prisoners held in extremely unsanitary prison conditions and facing the danger of contracting the coronavirus in a closed environment also include thousands of protesters arrested during the November and January protests. Many of them are even deprived of any contact with their families. Riots broke out in several prisons in Kurdistan, and in Mahabad and Saqqez, 80 prisoners were able to escape, according to the Kurdistan Human Rights Association (KMMK). In Mahabad, security forces and the Pasdaran killed two prisoners and injured three others. According to Hengaw, there were then 315 deaths throughout Iranian Kurdistan.
At the same time, the repression of dissidents, activists and critics of the regime in general continued. On the 1st of March, Etelaat arrested seven Kurds in Piranshahr for “cooperation with Kurdish opposition parties”. Other activists were arrested in Kurdistan, as well as a woman member of Dehgolan’s “Mothers for Peace” organisation, Zainap Ismaeli, whose son was killed by Daech while fighting with the YPG in Rojava. Hundreds of Kurds are still in prison, particularly in Saqqez and Piranshahr, and there is still no news of many of them, held incommunicado. In Sanandadj, Sirwan Rahimi, a Kurdish environmental activist, was sentenced to 13 months in prison. Three other environmentalists, Arman Wafai, Faradin Karimi and Afshen Shekholislami, arrested during the November demonstrations, were sentenced to three months in prison for “cooperation” with the PJAK. In Mazandaran, prominent Kurdish author Mozhgan Kawsi was sentenced to seven months and 15 days in prison for “propaganda against the Islamic Republic”. On the 18th, Hengaw estimated that in 2019 the authorities had arrested no less than 3.000 Kurds on charges related to political activities (WKI). Several Kurdish political prisoners are on hunger strike in Urumieh: one in protest against the prison administration’s refusal to grant him conditional release, others to demand their recognition as political prisoners, while they are incarcerated with ordinary convicts.
Religious minorities also continue to be targeted by repression, such as the Baha’is, whose religion is not recognized in Iran, thirty of whom were summoned to the Shiraz court (HRANA) on 14 March.
Finally, it should be noted that while French researcher Roland Marchal was released on March 21, most likely as part of a prisoner exchange negotiated between France and Iran with Iranian engineer Jalal Rohollahnejad, accused of circumventing U.S. sanctions against Iran and released the day before by Paris, his companion and colleague Fariba Adelkhah remains imprisoned in Iran; her life is a matter of grave concern.
Turkish military in Syria has a bad start in Syria for March. After a month of rising tensions between Russians and Turks in February, on 27 February at least 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in Idlib by an air strike. Even though the Turkish Ministry of Defence hastened to announce that it had in retaliation neutralised 309 soldiers of the regime, the president Erdoğan clearly found himself in dire straits. Attempting to force the Westerners to support him, he launched a new blackmail on the 28th by opening its borders to migrants wanting to enter Europe, and ordered new strikes on Idlib on 1st of March. In response, Syria announced the closure of its airspace to planes and drones (of which Turkey makes great use), now liable to be shot down without warning. EU ministers officially “firmly” rejected “the use of migratory pressure for political purposes” by Turkey. The EU could, however, agree to put in place new aid measures to help Turkey manage refugees it is not ready to accept (there are nearly four million in Turkey, compared to only a few tens of thousands in Europe outside Germany), but it has refused the Turkish president the military assistance he demanded for his Syrian campaign, in which he had embarked totally unilaterally. Russia therefore remained the obligatory partner for Mr Erdoğan. Despite new clashes between Turkish-supported jihadists and Russian-backed Syrian militaries, joint Turkish-Russian patrols continued on the 2nd East of Kobanê. On the 7th, Erdoğan travelled to Moscow, where he and his Russian counterpart concluded a new ceasefire, just as fragile as the previous ones.
Throughout this period, displaced families from Idlib continued to arrive in the area controlled by the Autonomous Administration of North-Eastern Syria (AANES) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Since the beginning of the Idlib crisis, a total of 1.500 families have found refuge in Rojava.
On the 15th, the joint Russian-Turkish patrols provided for in the Moscow Agreement began along the M4 motorway (Aleppo-Lattaquieh lane) at Idlib. However, they had to be interrupted due to the rejection of the local population and part of the opposition groups. They continued near Kobanê, this time accompanied by Russian helicopters.
These various agreements did not, however, prevent the jihadists in the service of Turkey from continuing their attacks throughout the month against the SDF in several villages near Ain Issa and Tell Tamr. Having been unable to achieve its objective of creating a “security zone” stretching along the border from Kobanê to Iraq, Turkey had to settle for a more restricted area, between Tel Abyad and Ras el Ayn, and was unable to obtain the complete evacuation of the SDF. But the situation is nevertheless serious for the latter, put under pressure by Damascus and Russia to accept integration into the Syrian army and to cease their relations with the Americans... This prospect is scarcely more pleasing than the Turkish occupation, as the Ba’th Party appears to have learned nothing from these last few years and remains on its Arab nationalist line with regard to the Kurds: on the 5th, the Syrian President described in an interview on a Russian channel the “Kurdish problem in Syria” as an “illusion” and a “lie”, also repeating the old propaganda that the Kurds living in the north of the country are in fact from Turkey. This pretext has been used by the Syrian authorities since the 1960s to justify all the political, linguistic and cultural discrimination imposed on the Kurds in the country, including the loss of the nationality of numerous of them. Another point Assad touched on was the American presence: he ruled out any negotiations with the Kurds as long as they maintain contact with the Americans, described as “occupiers”. AANES officials were quick to denounce these statements and, to demonstrate the inanity of Assad’s assertions, the chief of a Kurdish tribe in Derbassiya published on the internet the identity card of his grandfather, born in that town in 1872. The AANES also blamed the regime for Syria’s current situation of division for choosing to respond to claims exclusively by military force. The spokesman for the co-chairmanship of the AANES Executive Council, Bedran Çîya Kurd, suggested that these statements by Bashar Al-Assad may have contained a message to Turkey to offer a deal on the basis of the repression of Kurdish aspirations. On Monday 9th, Erdoğan had claimed to have offered Putin and Trump to manage the oil in the Syrian North-East, currently controlled by the FDS.
In terms of health, the situation in Rojava remains very worrying. As of 12 March, it is true that there were still no cases of CoVid in the AANES-controlled zone, but the health system is in such a state that it would not be able to resist if the epidemic arrived. Seven, then nine quarantine centres have been opened, border entries have been restricted since the end of February, and basic medical examinations are carried out on arriving people. On the 14th, schools were closed and all public events were cancelled. But with the only testing centre, which was in Serê Kaniyê (Ras al-Ain), put out of operation after the Turkish occupation of the city, the AANES now has to send the cases to be tested to Damascus... The regime is dragging its feet, and according to Thomas McClure, a researcher at the Rojava Information Centre, in four months only four people were able to get tested... On the 18th, the border with Iraqi Kurdistan was closed. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), there have been at least 62 cases in the part of the country controlled by the regime, probably due to the large presence there of Iranian militia (Kurdistan-24).
On the 23rd, a few hours after Damascus announced a first case of CoVid and closed schools, parks and restaurants, the Autonomous administration announced a two-week confinement-with-curfew throughout the area it controls. Concern has been growing due to the number of displaced persons, more than 100.000, in poor conditions. The co-president of the AANES Health Authority, Raperin Hassan, told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview: “Our means are really very limited. We only have two normal size hospitals with 200 beds each, which are not fully operational, seven ventilators, and no test kits. We urgently need help”. Appeals for help to the WHO, the Americans and Damascus have not yielded any tangible results, she added. Landlocked since the UN decision taken in January to restrict the arrival of aid, Rojava is also experiencing a shortage of medicines (La Croix). On the 25th, the SDF called for a military truce in Syria, in support of the call for a global humanitarian ceasefire made the day before by UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres. There were still no cases of CoVid in Rojava at that time, but according to McClure, this should not generate undue optimism: this might only be due to the fact that the administration has no testing kit... (Kurdistan-24)
As of 31 March, no cases of CoVid had yet been detected in the AANES-controlled areas, compared to nine cases in the rest of the country.
At the same time, several reports have shed light on the abuses committed in Syria, particularly against the Kurds. In a report published on 2nd of March, covering the period from July 2019 to 10 January 2020, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria (IICIS) set up in 2011 by the UN Human Rights Council, published testimonies from displaced Kurdish families and other civilians accusing Syrian rebels supported by Ankara of committing executions and looting and confiscating property. In particular, IICIS points to the summary execution on 12 October of the Kurdish female politician Hevrin Khalaf and her driver by pro-Turkish rebels. UN investigators also point to an air strike on 12th October on a civilian convoy of 80 vehicles, including families with children and journalists, in which eleven people were killed and 74 injured. The authors also denounce the targeting of “objects necessary for the survival of the civilian population” with strikes near the Aluq water station that interrupted the water supply to 460.000 people (AFP).
While the IICIS report also points to Moscow’s responsibility for war crimes related to air strikes in Syria, including two in Idlib and in the Damascus countryside in July and August that killed more than 60 people, it is worth noting that it was a Russian commission of inquiry that for its part accused Turkey of ethnic cleansing in Afrin, speaking of “fundamental changes” in this district. The report in question, published on the 3rd by the “Russian Centre for Reconciliation in Syria”, established in 2016 following a Russian-Turkish agreement, indicates that the Turkish forces and their Syrian mercenaries have displaced some 250.000 Kurds from Afrin, but also 135.000 from Sarê Kaniyê (Ras al-Ain) and Girê Spî (Tel Abyad) to replace them with Turkmen. In Afrin, a vast campaign of demographic change has been going on for nearly two years. A large part of its original Kurdish population now lives in IDP camps in the nearby towns of Tell Riffat, Shahba and Sherawa. In an interview on Rûdaw, Bashar Amin, a member of the Syrian Kurdish National Council (ENKS, the opposition to the Rojava administration), confirmed the assessment of the Russian centre. According to Amin, the ENKS tried to raise this demographic change in meetings with American, Russian and French officials, who in response called for intra-Kurdish unity and suggested that they could play the role of guarantors in trying to stop this process. However, skepticism is in order about the effectiveness of the admonitions made to Ankara, whereas according to another report, that of the Afrin human rights organisation, published in mid-March, the Kurdish population of Afrin, which was once a very large majority, has already fallen to 18%, and a genuine policy of turquification is continuing, including in education: Turkish is taught in schools, street names are being changed to Turkish names, and portraits of the Turkish President are now omnipresent... Furthermore, 6.200 people have been kidnapped, and the fate of 3.400 kidnap victims is still unknown. Finally, women have suffered particularly from the occupation of Afrin, with an unknown number of rapes and assaults.
This month of March began with the resignation of an Iraqi Prime Minister, the recently appointed one, the withdrawal of another, his predecessor, and ended with rumours of his successor’s resignation. More than ever, Iraq seems to be failing to emerge from its political crisis. Faced with this situation, the Kurds are avoiding taking sides, rather concerned about the epidemic engulfing their Iranian neighbour...
On 1st March, Prime Minister-designate Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi finally gave up forming a government. He had already failed three times to win the confidence of parliament, in particular because the Kurds, Sunnis and some Shi’a had blockaded him by boycotting parliamentary sessions. They disagreed on how he had selected his ministers without consulting them. On the 2nd, Iraqi President Barham Saleh held meetings with the leaders of different parliamentary blocs to try to choose a new candidate for the post. On the same day, caretaker Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, Allawi’s predecessor, announced that he was relinquishing most of his government responsibilities, except those related to his role as head of the armed forces. Faced with the absence of a constituted government, the Prime Minister’s financial adviser called on the 9th for the adoption of an “emergency budget” that would at least allow managing the fall in oil prices... If they remain below US$ 30, he warned, the deficit, initially forecast at $50 billion, could double. On the 10th, the Shi’a parties set up a seven-member committee to select a candidate for prime minister. On the 18th, the Iraqi president appointed the former governor of Najaf, Adnan al-Zurfi, asking him, according to the constitution, to form a cabinet within a month. On the 21st, the Hikma bloc announced that meetings between Shi’a leaders had not resulted in an agreement on this candidate, the “Rule of law” and “Fatah” coalitions remaining “irreducibly” opposed to al-Zurfi. The opposition seems to come in particular from pro-Iranian circles, including the militias. The leaders of the Kurdistan Region, for their part, have not taken an official position. On the 29th, Al-Zurfi tried to overcome opposition by describing the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Units) militias as a “legitimate Iraqi force”, but it is doubtful this is enough in the face of opponents who see in him “the man of the Americans”.
While the Iraqi political class was trying to agree on a Prime Minister, demonstrations – and violence against protesters – continued. On 1st March, at least 83 demonstrators were injured in clashes with security forces in Baghdad. On 4th March, the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights reported 160 injured, also in the capital. On 8th and 9th March, further clashes in the centre of the city left three protesters dead and 58 injured, including 11 security personnel.
At the same time, tensions over the US military presence continued to rise. On 1st March, two rockets struck the Green Zone without causing casualties, followed by two more attacks on the Taji camp near the capital, the first on 11th March, with 15 rockets killing two Americans and a British medical officer, and another on the 14th, with 25 rockets, leaving only wounded. The United States announced that it had launched a series of retaliatory strikes against several locations of the pro-Iranian Kata’ib Hizbollah militia, suspected of the previous attacks, resulting in Iraqi civilian and military casualties. Iraq complained to the Security Council and the UN Secretary-General. On the 27th, another rocket hit the Green Zone, without causing any casualties. At the end of the month, US troops evacuated two bases near Kirkuk and Mosul, handed them back to the Iraqi military, and transferred their soldiers to Erbil and the Ain-Assad base on the Syrian border, in a “long planned” redeployment, according to a spokesman.
Taking advantage of the chaos, Daech’s jihadists continued their attacks in the territories disputed between Kurdistan and Baghdad, notably in the Kirkuk, Tuz Khurmatou, Diyala sectors... On the 3rd, the Kurdish Minister of the Pechmergas complained that the Iraqi Defence Ministry was “still not ready to work together” with them in joint anti-terrorist operations, revealing that a meeting organised for this purpose on 24th February had been unable to reach an agreement. On 8th February, two US Marines were killed in Tuz Khumatu in a joint anti-Daech operation with the Iraqi military. On 16th February, a motorcycle bomb exploded in a crowded market in the city, injuring seven civilians, including a child. A cemetery of the Kurdish religious community of the Kakais was also attacked in Gwer. Many families of this community, systematically targeted by jihadists who consider them heretics, had already preferred to leave their homes in the Daquq region (Kurdistan-24).
In the north, the clashes between Kurdish PKK fighters and the Turkish military, who have since 2019 occupied several villages in Iraqi Kurdistan, continued to increase in intensity. On the 9th, the Balakayati region was targeted by Turkish air strikes, with no casualties. Since the beginning of the Turkish anti-PKK operation “Claws”, hundreds of Kurdish villages have had to be evacuated and more than thirty civilians have been killed in Turkish strikes. On the 23rd, the Turkish military neutralised two PKK members in the province of Dohouk. On the 25th, two Turkish soldiers were killed and two others wounded in a mortar attack on Haftanin, provoking retaliatory strikes in which eight PKK fighters were killed or captured according to the Turkish General Staff.
At the same time, the Kurdish Region, which had already closed its borders with Iran and ordered the closure of its educational establishments on 25th February, well before other countries in the region, gradually put itself in order to fight the CoVid-19 epidemic. The first four cases were reported in Suleimaniyeh on 1st March (travellers recently returned from Iran), and the first death on 4th March. A fifth case was detected in Kirkuk and another in Erbil. The government then closed all its offices, before declaring a 48-hour lockdown-with-curfew on the 14th. At that time there were 28 cases throughout the Kurdistan region of Iraq. The Kurdish authorities banned for two weeks all travel to the rest of Iraq, where there were 93 cases and 10 deaths, and forbade any large gatherings and sporting events (La libre Belgique). Prime Minister Masrour Barzani called on the population to respect health security measures and asked landlords to be accommodating with regard to rents because of this “extraordinary situation”. While the number of cases had risen to 34, the curfew was extended on the 15th by an additional 72 hours.
On 18th March, there were 154 confirmed cases throughout Iraq, including 17 in Baghdad, 11 deaths and 41 recoveries, and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) again extended the curfew, this time by five days, until 23rd March. On the 19th, there were 39 cases in Kurdistan, one death, and nine recoveries, a number that jumped to 85 on the 24th with a second death. The KRG extended the curfew until 1st April. By the end of the month, there were 161 cases, again with two deaths, and the curfew had been extended to 11th April.