President Barham Salih described the tragedy as a “wound for the whole nation,” while Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi announced an investigation into the blaze, declared three days of national mourning and suspended top health officials.
Iraq is in the worst phase of its coronavirus pandemic, averaging around 8,000 new cases daily as the health system struggles to cope. The country’s human rights commission said that 28 of the patients killed in Saturday’s fire had been on life support when the smoke and flames reached their ward.
Video surveillance footage showed a desperate scramble to save lives. Hospital staff dived into the blazing ward to drag out their patients. Local residents joined rescue efforts through the night, using light from their cell phones to illuminate the ashen wreckage.
Throughout the pandemic, Iraq’s Health Ministry has focused its public pronouncements on the number of new intensive care beds and ventilators that it says it has procured in order to ease strain on the system.
But it has done little to improve existing infrastructure and doctors say they have feared for the patients they treat in run-down wards where electricity cables have at times sparked visibly from the ceilings. In 2019, Iraq allocated just 2.5 percent of its $106.5 billion budget to its Health Ministry.
Preliminary reports suggested that Saturday’s fire emanated from a pile of haphazardly stored oxygen cylinders, which turned the intensive care ward into an inferno. The hospital has no smoke detectors and the blaze spread faster because its false roofs were flammable, said Maj. Gen. Kadhim Bohan, a spokesman for Iraq’s civil defense force.
He said that his organization had repeatedly recommended that government buildings adopted better safety precautions. “No one is listening,” he said.
The Health Ministry has still issued no statement or responded to phone requests for comment.
Speaking at an emergency meeting at the headquarters of Baghdad Operations Command, a coordinating body for Iraq’s security forces, Kadhim, the prime minister, described Saturday’s fire as a product of “negligence.”
He announced an investigation into the accident and fired the director-general of the Baghdad health department responsible for Ibn al-Khatib hospital, as well as the hospital’s head and director of engineering and maintenance, according to a statement from his office.
The top United Nations official in Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, expressed “shock and pain” at the scale of the tragedy. “The Special Representative calls for stronger protection measures to ensure that such a disaster cannot reoccur,” her statement read.
For his part, Salih, the president, described the fire as a result of “the accumulated destruction of state institutions due to corruption and mismanagement.”
“Showing pain and sympathy with our martyrs and injured sons is not enough without strenuous accountability for the negligent, and without conducting a comprehensive and serious review,” he said.