Iran's leaders vowed to overcome the coronavirus outbreak in upbeat messages marking the Persian New Year on Friday, even as the Health Ministry announced 149 more fatalities, bringing the country's death toll to 1,433.
Iran is battling the worst outbreak in the Middle East, with nearly 20,000 confirmed cases, and has been widely criticized for its slow response.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters, called the new year "the year of leaps in production" in Iran's economy, which has been under strain since U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear accord and imposed .harsh new sanctions.
President Hassan Rouhani also marked the new year, known as Nowruz, by promising a better economy. "We will put the coronavirus behind us soon with unity, with hard work and with cooperation," he said.
Most people who come down with the COVID-19 illness caused by the virus experience only minor symptoms and recover within weeks. But the virus is highly contagious and can be spread by people showing no symptoms. It can cause severe illness, including pneumonia, particularly in sick or elderly patients.
More than 240,000 people have been infected worldwide. More than 10,000 have died, while more than 85,000 have recovered.
Rouhani has defended his government's response to the pandemic in the face of widespread criticism that officials acted too slowly and may have even covered up initial cases before infections spread rapidly across the country.
He also sought to highlight what he viewed as the achievements of the past year, including the downing of a sophisticated U.S. drone and missile strikes on U.S. bases in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of Iran's top general in Baghdad.
Rouhani assured Iranians his administration will prioritize health in the coming year and said it had stockpiled basic supplies.
Nowruz is a major holiday in Iran, when shoppers typically pack local markets and take extended vacations. Most shops are closed this year, and those merchants who are still working can be seen warily accepting cash or debit cards from customers in face masks.
Khamenei issued a religious edict this week prohibiting all unnecessary travel and authorities have restricted travel between cities. After weeks of heavy criticism, authorities finally closed two major religious shrines in recent days.
Other countries in the region have imposed far stricter measures to contain the virus, including canceling flights, sealing borders and forcing nonessential businesses to close.
In Tel Aviv, the sprawling Mediterranean beachfront is deserted and authorities have roped off outdoor gyms and playgrounds to keep people from using them. Israel has reported more than 700 confirmed cases.
Jordan announced a total curfew starting Saturday, saying all shops would be closed. Government spokesman Amjad Adaileh said a "mechanism" would be announced Tuesday to allow people to shop for essential goods at specific times. Anyone violating the curfew could face up to a year in jail. Jordan has reported 69 cases, one of whom recovered.
In Iraq, which has one of the highest death rates in the region, authorities struggled to keep Shiite pilgrims from marking the annual commemoration of the death of Imam Mousa al-Kazim despite a week-long curfew in the capital. Thousands of Iraqis typically walk to the shrine of the imam in the Khazimiyah area of Baghdad.
Security forces have been stopping pilgrims in recent days, but more keep arriving. Late Thursday, the doors of the shrine were closed and the electricity switched off. Officials urged the faithful to perform the pilgrimage "remotely" to keep themselves and others safe.
Iraq has been grappling with anti-government protests for months. The coronavirus outbreak, which has infected 192 people and killed 13, and the fallout from cratered oil prices, threaten to plunge the country into a major crisis.
The U.S.-led coalition in Baghdad says it will "temporarily return some" of its forces from Iraq to their home countries in coming days and weeks in response to the Iraqi government's decision to suspend all training. It provided no numbers. The coalition also said that some coalition troops are being moved off a few smaller bases, partly to protect them from the coronavirus and partly because of progress in the campaign against the Islamic State group.
Saudi Arabia announced it would shut down domestic air travel, buses, taxis and trains for the next two weeks, beginning Saturday. The monarchy has reported 274 confirmed cases, eight of whom recovered.
In a televised address late Thursday, King Salman said: "We are living through a difficult phase of the world's history."
"However, we are completely certain that this phase will end and pass, despite its harshness and bitterness and its difficulties," he said, assuring Saudis the country had sufficient medical care and supplies to get through the crisis.
Pakistan reported its third death from the virus, a 77-year-old cancer patient, in its southern Sindh province. Pakistan has reported 452 confirmed cases, most of them linked to travel to neighboring Iran.
Pakistan closed its borders with Iran and Afghanistan weeks ago, but Prime Minister Imran Khan on Friday asked authorities to allow trucks carrying food and other essentials to cross into landlocked Afghanistan, where infections are also rising.
Pakistan closed its border with India near Lahore on Thursday. It is also placing hundreds of returning religious pilgrims into quarantine.
A barrage of rockets hit a base housing U.S. and other coalition troops north of Baghdad on Saturday, Iraqi security officials said, just days after a similar attack killed three servicemen, including two Americans.
The U.S.-led coalition said at least 25 107mm rockets struck Camp Taji just before 11 a.m. Some struck the area where coalition forces are based, while others fell on air defense units, the Iraqi military statement said.
Three coalition members and two Iraqi soldiers were wounded in the attack at Camp Taji, according to spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition Myles Caggins. The nationalities of the wounded coalition members was not immediately known.
A statement from Iraq's military said the "brutal aggression" wounded a number of air defense personnel who remain in critical condition, but did not provide a number.
Iraqi forces later discovered seven platforms from which the rockets were in the Abu Azam area, north of Baghdad. Another 24 missiles were discovered in place and ready to launch.
The attack was unusual because it occurred during the day. Previous assaults on military bases housing U.S. troops typically occurred at night.
The earlier rocket attack against Camp Taji on Wednesday also killed a British serviceman. It prompted American airstrikes Friday against what U.S. officials said were mainly weapons facilities belonging to Kataib Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militia group believed to be responsible.
However, Iraq's military said those airstrikes killed five security force members and a civilian, while wounding five fighters from the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella organization including an array of militias, including some Iran-backed groups.
Iran-backed Shiite militia groups vowed to exact revenge for Friday's U.S. strikes, signalling another cycle of tit-for-tat violence between Washington and Tehran that could play out inside Iraq.
Iraq's military also cautioned the U.S. from taking retaliating as it did on Friday without taking approval from the government. Taking unilateral action would "not limit these actions, but rather nurtures them, weakens the ability of the Iraqi state," the statement said.
America's killing of Iraqi security forces might also give Iran-backed militia groups more reason to stage counterattacks against U.S. troops in Iraq, analysts said.
"We can't forget that the PMF is a recognized entity within the Iraqi security forces; they aren't isolated from the security forces and often are co-located on the same bases or use the same facilities," said Sajad Jiyad, a researcher and former managing director of the Bayan Center, a Baghdad-based think tank.
"Now the (Iran-backed) groups who supported the initial strike in Taji, who were the most outspoken, feel obliged, authorized, maybe even legitimized to respond, ostensibly to protect Iraqi sovereignty but really to keep the pressure up on Americans," he added.
"There are no red lines anymore," Jiyad said.
Wednesday's attack on Camp Taji was the deadliest to target U.S. troops in Iraq since a late December rocket attack on an Iraqi base, which killed a U.S. contractor. That attack set in motion a series of attacks that brought Iraq to the brink of war.
After the contractor was killed, America launched airstrikes targeting Kataib Hezbollah, which in turn led to protests at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
A U.S. drone strike in Baghdad then killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a top commander responsible for expeditionary operations across the wider Mideast. Iran struck back with a ballistic missile attack on U.S. forces in Iraq, the Islamic Republic's most direct assault on America since the 1979 seizing of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
The U.S. and Iran stepped back from further attacks after the Soleimani incident. A senior U.S. official said in late January, when U.S.-Iran tensions had cooled, that the killing of Americans constituted a red line that could spark more violence.
Iran said Saturday the coronavirus outbreak has killed another 97 people, pushing the death toll in the country to 611, as war-ravaged Syria announced a number of strict measures despite the government saying it has no confirmed cases.
Iran is suffering from the worst outbreak in the Middle East, with 12,729 cases and even senior officials testing positive. It is a close ally of the Syrian government in the civil war, with military advisers as well as Shiite pilgrims frequently traveling between the two countries.
A spokesman for Iran's Health Ministry announced the latest cases on state TV. Health Minister Saeed Namaki said there would be "some new restrictions" on movement into and out of cities, without elaborating.
There are concerns that the number of infections in Iran is much higher than the confirmed cases reported by the government, with some Iranian lawmakers having questioned the official toll.
It's also unclear if local hospitals are able to cope with the influx of new cases, with at least 2,500 new infections announced in just the last two days. State TV reported earlier this week that hospitals in some areas are overwhelmed. Authorities have vowed to set up mobile clinics, but have not provided figures on needs and capabilities.
The outbreak has not spared Iran's top officials, with its senior vice president, Cabinet ministers, members of parliament, Revolutionary Guard members and Health Ministry officials among those infected.
Iran has suspended schools and banned spectators from stadiums, but religious shrines remain open and the markets and streets are still crowded in the capital, Tehran, which has been hit hardest by the virus.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
The vast majority of people recover from the new virus in a matter of weeks, but the outbreak has caused more than 5,000 deaths worldwide.
The Syrian government announced a series of precautionary measures, including closing schools and universities until April 2.
Following a Cabinet meeting Friday evening, the government also said it was reducing working hours in public institutions and canceling all cultural and sporting events, and all other events involving large gatherings, for the time being.
Syria also says it has taken preventive measures at all ports and border crossings. It has suspended travel with neighboring countries Iraq and Jordan, and it has halted religious tourism for a month.
Even in the tenth year of its devastating civil war, Syria has continued to receive large numbers of pilgrims from Iran, Iraq and neighboring Lebanon. They particularly visit the shrine of Sayida Zaynab, the prophet Muhammad's granddaughter, in a suburb of the capital Damascus. The shrine itself remained open, and health officials were checking pilgrims' temperatures before allowing them entry.
Other countries across the Middle East have already taken steps to contain the outbreak.
Earlier on Saturday, Saudi Arabia said it would halt all flights to the kingdom for two weeks. The state-run Saudi Press Agency, quoting an unnamed Interior Ministry official, said flights would be cancelled starting Sunday.
Qatar said it would bar entry to all visitors from Italy, France, Germany and Spain, where the number of new cases is on the rise, and require holders of residency permits to enter quarantine for 14 days. It also suspended entry from Sudan, which reported its first case, a fatality, earlier this week.
Authorities in Iraq's northern Kurdish region imposed a 48-hour curfew in the cities of Irbil and Sulaimaniyah that began overnight. The region has reported 27 cases, including one fatality from the COVID-19 illness caused by the virus.
The Gulf nation of Oman announced it would close all schools and educational facilities for one month.
In Jordan, where the only known case was a man who recovered, the government suspended all flights into and out of the kingdom except for aid workers and diplomats. It said schools would close for two weeks and banned the smoking of hookahs, or water pipes, in cafes.
In the United Arab Emirates, health officials ordered the elderly to stay home and authorities said some federal employees could begin working from home for two weeks starting Sunday.
Abu Dhabi's The National newspaper reported that nightclubs and tourist restaurants in the emirate will be shut down until the end of March. The Department of Culture and Tourism also suspended all planned events, including concerts, in Abu Dhabi. The decision does not extend to Dubai.
A number of major sporting events, conferences and other gatherings have been cancelled across the globe. The virus is highly contagious, and even those showing no symptoms can spread it, making large public gatherings particularly risky.
A spike in cases in the Gulf helped push infections in the Middle East for the new coronavirus past 10,000 cases on Thursday, with most infected people either in Iran or having recently traveled there.
Countries in the region have imposed varying levels of restrictions on travel, from wholesale halting of all commercial flights in Kuwait, to Saudi Arabia banning travel to 39 countries.
Regional stock markets were down, reflecting investor concerns and nerves felt globally as oil prices plunge and tourism revenue is eroded by the virus. The World Health Organization on Wednesday officially designated the outbreak a "pandemic."
Multiple top officials in Iran — from its senior vice president to Cabinet ministers, members of parliament, Revolutionary Guard members, health workers and health ministry officials — have contracted the virus. Some of those officials have died.
Iran says the virus has killed 354 people and infected some 9,000 people nationwide. There are concerns that the number of infections across Iran is much higher than the confirmed cases reported by the government, which is struggling to contain or manage its spread. The rising casualty figures each day in Iran suggest the fight against the new coronavirus is far from over.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus and the COVID-19 illness it causes.
Because the there is still no vaccine for the infectious disease, countries are implementing tough measures to restrict its spread, as well as the impact an outbreak could have on emergency rooms and intensive care units.
This week, Qatar reported a massive jump in cases of the new coronavirus late Wednesday with 262 now infected. The more than 200 new cases had been found in quarantine. In the Gulf Arab island nation of Bahrain, confirmed cases also rose by nearly 70% this week to 189 confirmed cases, after some 77 new cases were confirmed on a returning flight of Bahrainis from Iran.
Kuwait on Thursday closed all workplaces and non-essential business for two weeks, including restaurants, cafes and health clubs. Schools and universities have already been suspended. All commercial flights are being halted to Kuwait starting Friday. The country has over 70 confirmed cases of the new virus.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, announced a jump in cases from 21 to 45 late Wednesday, among them 12 Egyptians under quarantine in Mecca. The government has suspended pilgrimage to Islam's holiest sites, barring entry of all pilgrims to Mecca and Medina to curb the virus' spread. It has also cordoned off the eastern province of Qatif, where more than a dozen cases are confirmed among its mostly Shiite population from people who recently visited Iran.
Iran has one of the world's worst death tolls outside of China, the epicenter of the outbreak. Outside of Iran, only Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon have recorded deaths from the virus in the Middle East.
Three service members were killed, including two Americans, and a dozen more were injured when a barrage of rockets were fired at a military base in Iraq, U.S. officials said Wednesday.
One of the officials said five service members were seriously wounded and evacuated from the Camp Taji base and seven others were still being evaluated. Buildings on the base were in flames. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to give details of the attack ahead of a public announcement.
Army Col. Myles Caggins, a U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, confirmed that three personnel from the U.S.-led coalition were killed and about 12 were wounded, but did not provide details about what country they were from. The U.S. military said that the names of those killed would be released after family notifications.
Caggins, in a statement, said that about 18 107mm Katyusha rockets struck the base and that Iraqi Security Forces found a rocket-rigged truck a few miles from Camp Taji. Such Russian rockets have been used in the past by Iranian-backed militia groups in Iraq.
Another U.S. official said that as many as 30 rockets were fired from the truck launcher, but 18 hit the base.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed that a U.K. soldier had been killed in the "abhorrent" attack on the Taji base. The Ministry of Defense said the soldier, whose name has not been released, was from the Royal Army Medical Corps.
Johnson said Britain was "in close contact with our Coalition partners to establish exactly what happened."
There are about 400 U.K. soldiers in Iraq, training Iraqi and Kurdish security forces.
Officials did not say what group they believe launched the rocket attack, but Kataib Hezbollah or another Iranian-backed Shia militia group is likely.
Camp Taji, located just north of Baghdad, has been used as a training base for a number of years. There are as many as 6,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, training and advising Iraqi forces and conducting counterterror missions.
Kataib Hezbollah was responsible for a late December rocket attack on a military base in Kirkuk that killed a U.S. contractor, prompting American military strikes in response.
That in turn led to protests at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. They were followed January 3 by a U.S. airstrike that killed Iran's most powerful military officer, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a leader of the Iran-backed militias in Iraq, of which Kataib Hezbollah is a member.
Kataib Hezbollah been designated a "foreign terrorist organization" by the State Department since 2009.
Later on Wednesday, Syrian opposition activists and a war monitor reported an airstrike that targeted Iranian militia positions along the Iraq-Syria border.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 10 airstrikes carried out by three unidentified aircraft that targeted pro-Iran militias in the Boukamal region in eastern Syria, near the border with Iraq. The Britain-based Observatory which monitors the Syria war through a network of activists on the ground said at least 10 explosions were heard in the region but said there was no immediate word on casualties.
U.S. officials said the strike was not related to the Taji base strike at all. But it was not immediately clear who conducted the attack.
Syrian activist Omar Abu Layla said the unidentified airstrike targeted Iranian militia positions in the Boukamal region.
Syrian state-run media also reported an aerial attack in the Boukamal region near the Iraqi border that caused material damage.