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.
An Israeli court on Tuesday rejected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's request to delay the start of his corruption trial, clearing the way for proceedings to begin as planned next week.
Netanyahu's lawyers had appealed for a delay, saying they needed more time to review evidence. State prosecutors responded that they oppose any delays and the court accepted their position.
In overruling the request the presiding judge wrote that the first session on March 17 was a procedural reading of the charges only and the defendant's response was not needed, therefore there was no justification for a delay.
Netanyahu has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in connection to a series of scandals that include accepting expensive gifts from wealthy friends and offering to exchange favors with powerful media moguls. The long-ruling Israeli leader denies any wrongdoing and says he is the victim of a media-orchestrated witch hunt.
His legal troubles stood at the center of last week's national election, Israel's third in less than a year. Like elections last April and September, this one ended inconclusively.
Netanyahu's opponent, Benny Gantz, refused to sit with him in government and appears poised to push for legislation in the incoming parliament that would bar anyone indicted for a crime being able to lead a government — in effect disqualifying Netanyahu from leading the country.
While the most straightforward way out of the deadlock in each of the previous rounds was a unity government, the sides have grown increasingly acrimonious toward each other with each campaign.
On Tuesday, members of Netanyahu's Likud Party abstained from a procedural vote meant to approve the official election results, citing their demand for a recount of hundreds of ballots that are in contention. Gantz's Blue and White said the move set a "dangerous precedent" that damaged the legitimacy of the country's elections commission.
The anti-Netanyahu forces in the new incoming parliament command a 62-58 majority but are deeply divided among themselves, even though Gantz and the smaller Yisrael Beitenu party, led by Netanyahu ally-turned-nemesis Avigdor Lieberman, have agreed to cooperate to form a government.
Israel's president will soon begin consultations with the elected parties to determine who to tap as prime minister-designate, typically the leader of the largest party and in this case Netanyahu. If the deadlock continues, Israel could see itself heading toward a fourth straight election, which experts say would have disastrous effects on the public's confidence in their elected officials and electoral system.
Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving leader, is desperate to remain in office because installing a new government would give him an important political boost and potentially allow him to legislate his way out of the legal quagmire.
Amit Haddad, one of Netanyahu's lawyers, had said he would seek a delay in the start of the trial. He said the request was "technical" and meant to give the defense time to review investigative materials that it still has not received.
Iran will recognize doctors and nurses who die combating the new coronavirus as "martyrs" like slain soldiers, the country's supreme leader announced Tuesday as the outbreak killed 54 more people and pushed the nation's death toll to 291.
The decision by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei comes amid a propaganda campaign already trying to link the fight against the virus to Iran's long, bloody 1980s war with Iraq. The rising casualty figures each day in Iran suggest the fight against the new coronavirus is far from over, even as more people die from drinking methanol in the false belief it kills the virus.
Across the Mideast, over 8,600 people have contracted the virus and the COVID-19 illness it causes. The majority come from hard-hit Iran, which has one of the world's worst death tolls outside of China, the epicenter of the outbreak.
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. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover. In mainland China, more than 80,000 people have been diagnosed and over 58,000 have so far recovered.
On Tuesday, Iranian Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour offered new casualty figures for the virus, which represented an 18% increase in deaths from the day before and 12% more confirmed cases.
Jahanpour warned figures in Iran likely will continue to rise before the Persian New Year, Nowruz, on March 20. He urged people to limit their travel, which already has been difficult for police manning checkpoints on roads between major cities. Iran has yet to take widespread quarantine decisions like China and Italy.
"The rate of spreading disease is still rising," Jahanpour told a televised news conference.
Khamenei meanwhile announced that those who die medically combating the virus will be considered martyrs in the Islamic Republic. The families of martyrs, typically from the security services and armed forces, receive payments and benefits from the state. It also bestows a sense of religious importance on those fighting the virus in the Shiite theocracy, which experts fear may be under reporting the total number of cases.
Khamenei separately announced he would not be giving his annual Nowruz speech in the holy Shiite city of Mashhad.
A rumor circulating in Iran that alcohol can treat coronavirus has so far led to 37 deaths and sent 270 people to the hospital after being poisoned by bootleg alcohol, the state-run IRNA news agency said Tuesday.
Alcoholic beverages are illegal in Iran, but homemade brews in the southern city of Ahvaz apparently substituted toxic methanol for ethanol and used bleach to mask the color, Health Ministry official Ali Ehsanpour said.
Seven bootleggers have been identified and arrested, said Ali Beiranvand, the deputy prosecutor in Ahvaz.
Meanwhile on Tuesday, Lebanon had its first known coronavirus death, a Health Ministry official said. The official said the 56-year-old man had recently returned from Egypt. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give official statements.
Lebanese Minister of Culture Abbas Murtada separately ordered all museums closed until further notice because of coronavirus, according to state-run national news agency. Lebanon, like other Mideast nations, has closed schools and universities over the virus.
There were 59 confirmed cases as of Monday in Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country, including one fatality, a German tourist. Outside Iran, only Iraq, Egypt and now Lebanon have recorded deaths from the virus in the Mideast.
Hardest hit in Egypt was the ancient city of Luxor, which a WHO representative described Tuesday as being under strict government scrutiny. Dr. Jean Yaacoub Jabbour told The Associated Press that his agency is working with the Egyptian government to trace the cases and those who interacted with them, including the cases found aboard a Nile cruise ship.
"They have widened their investigation fully in order to reach and to trace all contacts ... , and also they are taking measures on the spot, for example this boat being in isolation, a self-isolation facility, taking care of all people inside," he said.
Egypt's government has announced a temporary ban on large public gatherings and all events involving people's movement between cities. Egypt's soccer association said Tuesday all soccer games in the country would be played in empty stadiums until further notice.
Saudi Arabia closed off air and sea travel to 14 countries affected by the new virus Monday, while Israel ordered two weeks of home quarantine for anyone arriving from overseas. The outbreak in Israel has been largely contained, but it has begun to gain pace in recent days, with a total of 58 cases diagnosed as of Tuesday. There are 26 confirmed cases in the Palestinian Territories.
Regionwide, stock markets largely posted gains Tuesday after major losses the day prior.
Kuwait has decided to suspend all flights with seven countries for one week as part of the precautions against the spread of the novel coronavirus, the Kuwaiti government said Saturday.
The decision was made at an emergency meeting of the Kuwaiti government on Friday night, and the seven countries are Bangladesh, the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt.
All arrivals who are of these nationalities or have a valid residency in these countries, as well as non-Kuwaitis who have entered or transited in these countries during the past two weeks, will be denied access into Kuwait, according to the government decision.
The number of the confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Kuwait has grown to 61, according to the latest statistics from the Ministry of Health.