By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 22, 2007
BAGHDAD, Sept. 21 -- An outbreak of cholera has spread from northern Iraq to Baghdad, infecting at least 1,500 people, the World Health Organization announced Friday.
A 25-year-old woman this week became the first Baghdad resident found to have cholera, and more cases are likely to be confirmed, a WHO spokeswoman said. About 1,500 cases have been confirmed in Iraq's northern Kurdish region, and more than 24,000 other cases are suspected there. At least 10 people have died of cholera in Iraq.
Cholera is an acute intestinal infection spread through contaminated water or food, making it easy to prevent in countries where clean water is prevalent. A nationwide shortage of chlorine in Iraq has limited access to potable water and put millions at risk of contracting the disease, which can remain dormant in some people while quickly killing others. Officials say the widespread displacement of people within Iraq has contributed to cholera's swift spread over the past several weeks.
In the Kurdish north, restaurants have stopped serving tea because of fears of spreading cholera, but poor families continue to drink whatever water is available. The WHO has sent medical supplies to the area, as well as literature encouraging people to wash their hands and boil their water to kill the cholera bacterium.
Meanwhile, two aides to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite cleric, were killed on Thursday and Friday in southern Iraq, prompting hundreds of Sistani followers to boycott Friday prayers in protest. Ahmed al-Barqawi, Sistani's top representative in Diwaniyah, was assassinated as he drove home Friday. The night before, a Sistani aide in Basra, Amjad al-Janabi, was gunned down along with his driver. Three other Sistani advisers have been killed in the last two months, reigniting fears for the cleric's safety. Sistani was the target of an assassination attempt in January.
Maj. Gen. Joseph F. Fil Jr., the top U.S. commander for Baghdad, said Friday that attacks in the city have fallen by 50 percent since February and are at their lowest level in 10 months. He said slightly more of Baghdad's 474 neighborhoods -- 8 percent compared with 7 percent in late June -- are largely pacified, with Iraqi security forces taking the lead in maintaining security.
Another 46 percent of neighborhoods are under the control of U.S. and Iraqi forces, compared with 41 percent in late June, based on the assessments of U.S. ground commanders, he said in a videoconference with reporters at the Pentagon.
Fil said that Iraqi security forces are currently not sufficient to protect Baghdad but that a planned increase of 12,000 Iraqi police officers will allow a gradual handover as the U.S. military begins to withdraw forces from the city. He predicted, however, that some Baghdad neighborhoods would still not yet be under the control of U.S. and Iraqi forces.
Also on Friday, the office of prominent Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr issued a sharp rebuke against the detention of Sadr followers in the southern city of Karbala, calling the arrests part of a "battle against the Sadrists."
Abu Haider al-Rubai, a senior leader in Sadr's office, said nearly 400 Sadrists have been arrested since an outbreak of violence that killed 50 people at a religious festival in Karbala last month. Rubai alleged that many people have been arrested without probable cause.
"The arrests are ongoing against the members of the Sadr office and whoever hangs a picture of Moqtada or his father," Rubai said.
Karbala police spokesman Rahim Mishawir disputed Rubai's account, saying everyone who had been arrested in the city was suspected of wrongdoing. He confirmed that roughly 400 Sadr followers had been arrested since the festival but said that more than 300 of them had since been released.
"There have been no random arrests," Mishawir said. "All those saying that whoever hangs Moqtada's picture will be arrested are incorrect. The Sadrists are still there and their office is still open, and whoever is being arrested is arrested because there are arrest warrants against them."
Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson in Washington and special correspondent Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad contributed to this report.