A devastating fire Saturday night at a Baghdad hospital for coronavirus patients has killed at least 82 people and injured more than 100, Iraq’s interior ministry said, sparking allegations of corruption and neglect in the health ministry as it grapples with the pandemic.
The fire was set off by an exploding oxygen cylinder, ripping through the Ibn al-Khatib Hospital within minutes, the Associated Press reported. One medic told the news agency the blaze resembled “volcanoes of fire”.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has called for an investigation into the incident to be completed in five days and has suspended the health minister, Baghdad governor and director of health for Al Rusafa district. He pledged to hold to account those responsible for “negligence”.
Despite being Opec’s second-biggest oil producer, Iraq is hobbled by neglected infrastructure, a legacy of sanctions against dictator Saddam Hussein in the 1990s followed by years of chaos following his overthrow.
The hospital had been dedicated to coronavirus patients. Iraq, like many countries in the region, has struggled to get the pandemic under control. The disease has killed more than 15,000 Iraqis since the start of the pandemic, according to health ministry data.
Ali al-Bayati, a member of Iraq’s High Commission for Human Rights, which monitors civilian casualties, said 28 people in the hospital ward were on ventilators. “The corruption and the trouble inside [the health] ministry is really deep,” Bayati told the Financial Times.
He added that occupational safety failings and neglect had been overlooked by successive ministers and called on Kadhimi to broaden the investigation and “open the portfolio in full detail”.
Major General Khaled al-Muhanna, interior ministry spokesperson, said on Sunday that the death toll from the fire had reached 82, with 110 people injured. “Some victims died due to the fires and others threw themselves from a high place,” he said, in comments carried on official media.
“Ninety per cent of government institutions have not adhered to procedures for civil defence and precautions aimed at [safeguarding] citizen[s],” said Muhanna.
Iraqi protesters have long complained of corruption and poor governance. Iraq’s health and environment ministry is controlled by the political party loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand cleric and militia leader turned politician. Iraq is set to hold elections this autumn.
The country’s record of accidents is underscored by a lack of public accountability. Nearly 100 people died when a ferry sank in the northern city of Mosul last year.