Grief, anger as fire in Iraq Covid unit kills 64

Nasiriyah (Iraq) (AFP) –


Grief and anger gripped the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah on Tuesday after fire swept through a Covid isolation unit killing 64 people and wounding dozens more.

The devastating Monday evening blaze in the city's Al-Hussein Hospital, which medics said was fuelled by the explosion of oxygen canisters, was the second such fire in Iraq in three months.

"Sixty-four (bodies) were retrieved and 39 identified and handed over to their families," a source at the provincial forensic science department told AFP.

"Medical teams and relatives of victims are finding it difficult to identify the rest of the corpses," the source said, adding that the death toll might rise with more bodies feared buried under the rubble.

A hundred people were also wounded in the blaze.

On Tuesday, as the first of the funerals were held, angry protesters gathered to vent their anger at provincial authorities they hold responsible for the deaths, an AFP correspondent said.

In Al-Dawaya, east of Nasiriyah, a joint funeral was held for six members of one family who died in the inferno.

In Al-Nasr, north of the city, a joint funeral was held two brothers and two sisters, who were among the dead.

Abbas Agil, a pensioner who attended the funeral in Al-Nasr, said the shouts of grieving mourners were filled with rage at provincial officials they accuse of corruption and neglect.

- 'Confront the corrupt' -

Hundreds of young protesters shut down private hospitals in Nasiriyah to pressure authorities to open the doors of a newly-built public hospital in the southern city.

Last month, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Khademi inaugurated the brand new hospital, constructed by a Turkish firm. But the hospital and its more than 400 beds have yet to be opened to patients.

Photos shared on social media showed graffiti spray-painted on the entrance of a private hospital with the words: "Closed - on the orders of the people".

In late 2019, at the height of the countrywide anti-government protests, Nasiriyah was referred to as the heart of the uprising.

"The state must take the necessary measures... to confront the corrupt," one young protester told AFP.

He said those responsible must be held "accountable... in transparent investigations that show people that it (the state) is serious about putting an end to these tragedies."

In a Tuesday tweet, Iraqi President Barham Salih blamed the "catastrophe" at Al-Hussein Hospital on "persistent corruption and mismanagement that undervalues the lives of Iraqis".

Salih recalled an April fire at a Baghdad Covid-19 hospital which killed 82 people and injured 110. It too was sparked by the explosion of badly stored oxygen cylinders.

The April fire triggered widespread anger, resulting in the suspension and subsequent resignation of then health minister Hassan al-Tamimi.

Between January and March alone, the interior ministry recorded 7,000 fires.

On Monday, a minor fire broke out at the health ministry's headquarters in Baghdad, but it was quickly contained without any casualties.

Iraq -- whose oil-dependent economy is still recovering from decades of war and international sanctions -- has recorded more than 1.4 million coronavirus cases and more than 17,000 deaths.

Much of the country's health infrastructure is dilapidated and investment in public services has been hamstrung by endemic corruption.