Another Iranian lawmaker dies of novel coronavirus
An Iranian lawmaker died from the novel coronavirus on Saturday, state news agency IRNA reported, one of several officials to succumb to the illness in the epidemic-hit country.
Fatemeh Rahbar, 55, was a conservative MP and had recently been elected to the parliament from the capital Tehran, the agency said.
She is the second lawmaker killed by the virus in Iran and one of seven politicians and government officials who have died in the outbreak since the country reported its first cases in mid-February.
Iran has been scrambling to contain the rapid spread of the virus, which so far has infected 4,747 people and killed at least 124.
Rahbar was among the top candidates in Tehran for the conservatives, who overwhelmingly won February's general election marked by the lowest turnout in the Islamic republic's history.
Iran has closed schools and universities, suspended major cultural and sporting events and reduced working hours across the country to slow the contagion, which has spread to all of its 31 provinces.
Iraq announces new steps
Authorities had already closed the borders with neighbouring Iran, which has seen the world's second-deadliest outbreak, and banned the entry of foreign nationals travelling from there and other badly affected countries.
Schools, universities, cinemas and other public spaces had been closed for the past week, but restaurants, malls and cafes have remained open.
On Friday, representatives who usually read Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani's address at a packed mosque, broadcast live on state television, did not appear.
Religious authorities had already closed the shrine of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, where his sermon is usually delivered, to mitigate the risk of contagion.
The 89-year-old Sistani is based in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, south of Karbala, and never appears in public.
An official at the site in the holy city of Karbala told AFP that "the cancellation of Friday prayers at the Imam Hussein shrine is a first since 2003", the year an American-led invasion toppled veteran dictator Saddam Hussein.
Sources close to Sistani's office confirmed the unprecedented nature of the decision.
Authorities are particularly worried about coronavirus spreading via Shiite holy sites, which attract millions of pilgrims including many from Iran. But on Friday numerous pilgrims flocked to the area near the Karbala mausoleum, and a road linking two shrines in the city was still open to pilgrims, AFP journalists said.
Provincial authorities have barred non-residents from entering Karbala province from Friday.
Sistani had dedicated part of his last two sermons to the health situation in the country of 40 million.
The virus has fuelled panic among Iraqis who say the war-ravaged country's health system cannot handle the epidemic.
In Najaf, the mausoleum of Imam Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad, was open to the public on Friday after Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr personally pushed for it to be re-opened.
Hundreds of his supporters gathered for prayers in the nearby town of Kufa -- Sadr's birthplace -- on Friday, AFP journalists reported. Sadr did not attend, but sent a representative to deliver his sermon.
In Samarra, another holy Shiite site north of Baghdad, religious authorities cancelled a second pilgrimage in the space of a week.