Violence Invades Baghdad's Emergency Rooms

By Saad al-Izzi
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 21, 2006

BAGHDAD, May 16 -- On a bad day in Baghdad's busiest Iraqi ER -- and they're all bad -- the men wielding AK-47 assault rifles and pistols can outnumber the men and women with scalpels and stretchers 2 to 1.

"Help us out here!" called a blood-soaked man who had hauled his third pickup-truck load of dead and wounded men and women from a recent market bombing to the emergency room at Yarmouk Hospital.

But armed Iraqi soldiers in camouflage and flak vests ignored the plea. Instead, they hustled comrades wounded in a clash with insurgents into the already crowded ER, where gunmen in civilian garb had brought their own bleeding friends.

"We have no problems with pistols and AK-47s, but sometimes they come with their bigger machine guns into this small ward," Nail Ali Hussein, a pediatric surgeon turned trauma specialist, said as he made his way around four Iraqi soldiers in battle gear clustered around a comrade with a chest wound. "A scratch," Hussein said dismissively of the injury.

Located in west Baghdad, the bloodiest half of the Iraqi capital, Yarmouk has coped for three years with an unrelenting daily stream of wounded, dying and dead. The U.S. emergency room depicted in the HBO documentary "Baghdad ER," airing for the first time Sunday night, does similar work for wounded U.S. military personnel and Iraqi civilians, but compared to this one it's secure and well equipped.

"All the hot spots are around this hospital," Hussein said. By the end of his 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. shift, he had treated about 100 patients, he said -- a normal work day, but "an indescribable burden."

Even in a Baghdad ER, some suffering stands out. For Hayder Ibrahim, a colleague of Hussein's, memories of Sept. 30, 2004, are among the hardest to shake. That day, bombers targeted an inaugural ceremony for a water treatment plant, striking just as U.S. forces handed out candy and cake to residents.

"I remember that day not because of the numbers, because sometimes we receive even more, but because they were all children," Ibrahim said. Yarmouk's ER was filled with some of the 35 children who were killed and 60 who were wounded.

For many medical workers, it's too much to take. Hundreds of physicians have left Iraq, fleeing not just the general violence but also those who attack them in an apparent attempt to destabilize the country by driving out its professionals. Physicians who stay face abuse by Iraq's security forces, who often demand priority -- and miracles -- for wounded troops and police.

"They think that everyone wearing a white coat can bring people back to life, even if they are shot in the head and their brains are out," Ibrahim said.

Employees at Yarmouk staged a two-day strike in March to protest the abuse. They described beatings, manhandling and insults by overwrought police officers and soldiers.

"Sometimes we overlook some of the violations, but other times they cross the line by starting to beat the doctors, and even start shooting inside the ward," Hussein said.

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