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Virus kills member of council advising Iran's supreme leader

A pedestrian wearing a face mask crosses a street in northern Tehran, Iran, on March 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- A member of a council that advises Iran's supreme leader died Monday after falling sick from the new coronavirus, state radio reported, becoming the first top official to succumb to the illness striking both citizens and leaders of the Islamic Republic.

    The death of Expediency Council member Mohammad Mirmohammadi, 71, came as Iran announced the virus had killed 66 people among 1,501 confirmed cases in the country. In two days, the number of confirmed cases has more than doubled, showing the spiraling crisis of the outbreak as Iran says it is preparing to mobilize 300,000 soldiers and volunteers to confront the virus.

    Iran has the highest death toll in the world after China, the epicenter of the virus that causes the illness called COVID-19.

    Across the wider Mideast, there are over 1,680 cases of the new coronavirus, including Iran. The majority of regional cases are linked back to Iran.

    Experts worry Iran's percentage of deaths to infections, now around 4.4%, is much higher than other countries, suggesting the number of infections in Iran may be much higher than current figures show.

    Mirmohammadi died at a north Tehran hospital of the virus, state radio said. He previously served as the head of the presidency under former Presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ali Khamenei, now the country's supreme leader. Mirmohammadi's mother had died of the coronavirus in recent days as well, Iranian media reported.

    The Expediency Council advises the supreme leader, as well as settles disputes between parliament and the Guardian Council, Iran's constitutional watchdog that also oversees the country's elections. The 45-member council, which also includes former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and officials close to Khamenei, last met in February with Mirmohammadi on hand.

    Mirmohammadi's death comes as other top officials have contracted the virus in Iran.

    Those sick include Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar, better known as "Sister Mary," the English-speaking spokeswoman for the students who seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and sparked the 444-day hostage crisis, state media reported. Also sick is Iraj Harirchi, the head of an Iranian government task force on the coronavirus who tried to downplay the virus before falling ill.

    Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei, himself addressing journalists by teleconference over concerns about the virus, acknowledged the challenges remaining for the Islamic Republic.

    "We will have two difficult weeks ahead," he said.

    Health Ministry spokesman Ali Reza Raisi, who gave the new figures for the virus Monday, said that Iran's armed forces and its Basij, the all-volunteer arm of its paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, stood ready to mobilize 300,000 troops to help combat the virus. Already, Guard vehicles have been spraying disinfectant on streets in major cities.

    Those troops would help sanitizing public areas, as well as running down leads on who infected people had contacted before falling ill, Raisi said.

    Trying to stem the outbreak of the new coronavirus, Iran also on Monday held an online-only briefing by its Foreign Ministry. China as well has held similar teleconference briefings.

    Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi opened the online news conference addressing the outbreak, dismissing an offer of help for Iran by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

    Iran and the U.S. have seen some of the worst tensions since its 1979 Islamic Revolution in recent months, culminating in the American drone strike that killed a top Iranian general in Baghdad and a subsequent Iranian ballistic missile counterattack against U.S. forces.

    "We neither count on such help nor are we ready to accept verbal help," Mousavi said. He added Iran has always been "suspicious" about America's intentions and accused the U.S. government of trying to weaken Iranians' spirits over the outbreak.

    Judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi acknowledged some people had begun stockpiling medical supplies for profit in the country, urging prosecutors to show "no mercy for hoarders."

    "Hoarding sanitizing items is playing with people's lives and it is not ignorable," Raisi said.

    Raisi also urged officials to grant "maximum" leave to prisoners. Activists have raised concern about the spread of the new coronavirus in Iran's prisons.

    The British Embassy meanwhile has begun evacuations over the virus. It said that essential staff were still in Iran, but if "the situation deteriorates further," the embassy's ability to help British nationals there "may be limited."

    While Iran has closed schools and universities to stop the spread of the virus, major Shiite shrines have remained open despite civilian authorities calling for them to be closed. The holy cities of Mashhad and Qom in particular, both home to shrines, have been hard-hit by the virus. Shiites often touch and kiss shrines as a sign of their faith. Authorities have been cleaning the shrines with disinfectants.

    Police have arrested one man who posted a video showing himself licking the metal enclosing the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, the most-important Shiite saint buried in the country, according to reports by semiofficial news agencies. In the video, the man said he licked the metal to "allow others to visit the shrine with peace of mind."

    Jordan separately announced its first case of the new virus, saying it involved a Jordanian who had been in Italy. Health Minister Saad Jaber said his family and close contacts now were being tested.

    Meanwhile Monday, the virus outbreak saw itself dragged into the yearslong boycott of Qatar by four Arab nations over a political dispute.

    A prominent columnist at Dubai's government-owned Al-Bayan newspaper on Twitter falsely described the virus as being a plot by Qatar to hurt the upcoming Expo 2020 world's fair in Dubai and Saudi Arabia. Noura al-Moteari later described the tweet as "satire" to The Associated Press after it gained widespread attention.

    The Dubai Media Office similarly described the tweet as being written in a "cynical style" while distancing the Arabic-language daily from al-Moteari.

    "Noura is a freelance writer and is not an employee of Al-Bayan nor does she represent the publication's views," it told the AP. "That being said, this has no relevance to any social media policy being practiced by the publication nor the state."

    The tweet comes after Qatar expressed disappointment Sunday that nearly all of its Gulf neighbors snubbed invitations to attend the weekend peace signing ceremony between the U.S. and the Taliban.

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