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Iraqi cleric's shot inspires loyalists to get vaccine

by LOUISA LOVELUCK AND MUSTAFA SALIM THE WASHINGTON POST | May 7, 2021 at 3:53 a.m.

BAGHDAD -- The image of influential Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr with his robe unbuttoned and receiving the coronavirus vaccine has boosted sluggish efforts to halt the virus in the country, encouraging Iraqis to take the jab amid widespread skepticism.

Two months after Iraq received its first doses, the number of daily vaccinations has slowed to a trickle even as infections rise and doctors implore citizens to protect themselves.

The cleric's intervention prompted hundreds of his followers to line hospital corridors in search of their own vaccinations -- and the visibility of even this small increase underscored just how troubled Iraq's vaccination effort has become.

"I'd decided not to take the vaccine after hearing so many rumors about how it might change my genetics. But when I saw our commander getting it, I realized I'd been wrong," said Fadhil Abbas, sitting at home in Baghdad's Sadr City, a hub of support for the cleric.

The 40-year-old bus driver said the image of Sadr being vaccinated had inspired him to seek the injection in a nearby clinic. "If Sadr says the vaccine is good, then the vaccine is good," he said.

Iraq's government has announced a 10-day lockdown as it struggles to slow its outbreak. The country passed 1 million infections last month and is recording almost 6,000 new cases daily. Only a little over 1% of the country's 40 million people have been vaccinated, with many Iraqis citing mistrust in medical institutions or in the vaccine itself.

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Against this backdrop, political and religious leaders like Sadr, a storied figure in Iraq, have the potential to persuade where other government messaging has failed. The cleric commands loyalty from tens of thousands of his working-class followers. Many shared photographs this week of their trips to vaccination clinics, some clutching photographs of the black-turbaned cleric alongside Iraq's highest religious authority, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

In neighborhoods around Sadr City, a packed and sprawling quarter in the capital's northeast, medics said Sadr's intervention had made a noticeable difference to their daily vaccination efforts. "Before that Sadr photo, there was a maximum of 40 to 50 patients per day. Now, it's hundreds turning up like they're gearing up for battle," said one medic. "When it's done, they flash the victory sign. It's like Sadr is their doctor, not me."

Ghayeb al-Amiri, a member of the Iraqi parliament's health committee, said more than 610,000 people had registered for vaccination appointments within 30 minutes of Sadr's photograph appearing on social media.

Iraqi public figures including the president and a host of film stars have also publicized their own visits to clinics, although none has prompted a similar boost in registrations.

In the years since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, the cleric has positioned himself variously as a sectarian militia leader, a revolutionary figure and a nationalist who can unify the country.

He agitated for attacks against U.S. troops during the early years of America's military presence. Today, he is an aspiring statesman who holds sway over government formation and controls key ministries.

The cleric's stance on the vaccine has also shifted over time, apparently in line with the political points he is trying to make.

After Iraqi lawmakers voted to oust U.S. troops from Iraq last year, he tweeted that he would not accept any cure produced by the "enemy of God" America.

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