Every sunrise brings out a new wave of the sick and the desperate, but this was the worst sight yet: a crying woman, a man holding a child and the unmistakable smell of kerosene.
Thirty minutes before, the child was a thirsty 2-year-old who saw a bright pink cup filled with liquid outside his front door. Now, limp in his father's arms, he was the morning's first example of the medical chaos that has descended on liberated Iraq.
"He was thirsty. He drank kerosene," they explained through an interpreter to the guard at the gate. They weren't at the hospital, which was closed after being looted the night before, but at a military compound.
"We need help," they said, out of breath from running from their home, but the guard, an armed British MP who suspected anyone could be a suicide bomber, said there was nothing he could do. He looked at the boy, who was starting to convulse. There are no medical facilities inside, he said, and suggested they look for help at another compound.
That compound was a mile away. The family ran home. They found a neighbor with a car, who drove them to a second closed gate with armed guards, one of whom said, "We have no medical assistance in here," and directed them to a third compound several miles north of town.
The boy's eyes were now shut. The mother, still crying, rode with her head in her hands.
"You have to go to the local hospital," the guard at the third compound said.
"The local hospital is closed," they said.
"Go to the local hospital," the guard repeated, turning away, and the family, not knowing what else to do, went home, where the father handed the half-conscious boy to the mother, who put him to her breast and urged him to drink as much as he could.
And that's what saved the life of a 2-year-old named Ali. Today, three days later, he was outside of his house, playing in the dirt side streets of Umm Qasr, happily oblivious.
But the medical crisis in southern Iraq remained critical. It is a health care system of band-aids at best, of patients in pain and doctors in disorder.
In Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, doctors were concerned about an increase in patients with stomach illnesses and worried that a lack of electricity and water meant they had no way to test for cholera or dysentery. In Zubair, population about 250,000, the head of the hospital was threatening to shut down the facility after he and his staff had to use guns and sticks to fight off looters and recapture a stolen ambulance.
And in Umm Qasr, population 30,000, the hospital was reopened Thursday after a group of British civil affairs soldiers showed up and told the manager, a pediatrician named Mohammed Mansoury, that he had six hours to clear out.
"This is the way you treat a man who has given 16 years of service?" one of the doctors shouted at the soldiers. But the soldiers had been told that Mansoury was a member of the Baath Party, and that during the battle for Umm Qasr he had saved a wounded Iraqi soldier from being captured by putting him in an ambulance with a fake IV and driving him away.
This much about Mansoury was true: One day after U.S. soldiers noted the portrait of Saddam Hussein in his office, he hesitantly took it down, refused to smash it, explaining, "We need the glass, maybe, in the future," and whispered to at least one American: "Don't forget us like you forgot us in 1991."
He also lived next to the hospital in a little house with his wife and four children, and after 16 years was earning $100 a month.
And now everything he owned in the world, which wasn't terribly much, was being loaded onto a truck, while he paced around his dirt yard, saying, "I am not fine, I am not fine," and while armed British soldiers were sweeping through the corridors of the hospital, taking control.
But then, a few minutes later, the lieutenant colonel in charge of the operation ordered everything back into Mansoury's house. Plans had changed: Mansoury could stay, but he could no longer manage the hospital.
"We're just changing structures in the hospital to allow doctors to be doctors," the lieutenant colonel explained as 100 or so ill and injured residents of Umm Qasr were lined up by soldiers to go into a hospital examining room guarded by yet another soldier with another gun.
"Everything is now going to be sweetness and light," he said.
In Basra, meanwhile, the Basra General Hospital got a new manager as well. This was done today -- not by soldiers, but by the hospital doctors, who celebrated their liberation by voting to get rid of the doctor who had managed them for years. The new manager, a physician named Mustafa Ali, inherits a sprawling 400-bed hospital that has no water, sporadic electricity and wards of patients injured in the battle for Basra, such as Mahmood Mohammed, 17, whose right leg was amputated and whose left leg is in a full cast, and who said: "It is a horrible war. I lost my two legs. What is the benefit of this? I have lost my future."
And Zainab Hamed, a 9-year-old girl with a new, above-the-knee amputation, whose mother and siblings were killed in the bombing and whose father, attempting to explain what happened to the family, kept breaking down in tears.
"The problem is the water supply. The problem is the electricity. The problem is security," Ali said, listing what must be fixed before the hospital could be a fully functioning hospital again.
"We have no water," said a surgeon named Ammar Hassiny. "When we operate, how can we clean the patient? We don't have bottles of oxygen in the operating rooms. We have many patients who need operations. There are four who have been waiting a week for urgent surgical treatment."
"We need electricity for the laboratory," said a doctor named Nadim Raheem, who treats an average of 300 patients in the outpatient clinic, including, over the past several days, an increasing number with stomach distress.
His suspicion: "The water supply, especially contaminated water, is leading to this." His fear: "Cholera." But he has no way of knowing, he said, because of the lack of electricity. "There is no facility of investigation to see if it is parasite, viral or biological."
What he does know: "Day by day, there are an increasing number. Patients with diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal pain. Not an outbreak. But more and more, all the time."
Meanwhile, in Zubair, where people have started chopping down trees for kindling because they are running out of oil for their stoves, and the garbage can't be collected because the garbage truck was stolen, and the hospital has guns in it, the doctor in charge of the hospital, Abdul Hussain, was visited this afternoon by three British Marines.
"We've come to see how you are," said Maj. Finley Walls, sitting in an office with a large hole in one of the walls.
"We are in a bad state, a bad condition," Hussain said.
"What can we do?" Walls said. "We're here to help."
"There are looters. I prevent them by staying here, me and my staff, and by fighting them with sticks and boxing and shooting," Hussain continued. "Yesterday, one of our ambulances was robbed by some persons, and we captured one by shooting and fights. We capture one and deliver him to you, but two or three are circling and want to attack the hospital again. The staff -- some people attack them, and some of the staff have run away."
"Our main aim is to get your hospital and the rest of the community back to normal activity," Walls said.
"My staff has run," Hussain repeated. "I and some staff are present, but tomorrow you may not even find me. We need protection. We need protection from the English army. We need soldiers in the hospital."
"I will speak to my commanding officer and do my utmost to get a team here," Walls said.
"I have guns now in the hospital," Hussain said. "I protect the hospital with them, and I have a bodyguard for me because they try to kill me."
"I'll do my utmost," Walls said again.
"I want to close the hospital in the coming few days," Hussain said.
"We'll return soon," Walls said, as he and the other Marines departed.
Hussain watched them go. He wondered if they would be back at all. He began examining a fresh cut on one of his fingers.
"Yesterday, they injured me," he said. "One of the robbers who wanted to steal the ambulance cut me with a knife. They did steal it. We followed them about four kilometers, and we shoot at them, and we got the ambulance back. We are cowboys now. We are not doctors. That is not my job. We are cowboys."
Excusing himself, he went outside. He was expecting people. Earlier in the day, during Friday prayer at the mosque, he had stood and said, "This is your hospital. If you want it to continue, come protect it. If you don't, I will close it."
Forty-two people said they would come. That's who he was waiting for.
They said they would come by 4 p.m.
By 3:45, 14 had. "We stay all night," one of them promised. "We will protect the hospital by gun and by iron," promised another.
Then came 4 p.m. and the arrival of a car so old and strung together it looked like something in a cartoon. Four men were in it. They jumped out, yelling.
Several of the doctors came running. They ran toward the car.
One of the protectors moved toward the car as well.
And then, together, everyone lifted a man who had been lying in the back.
He had been the driver. Maybe it was the garbage. Maybe it was some shrapnel. But he got a flat tire and was changing it when the car came off its jack and fell on him. His head was crushed. He was leaking blood over everyone.
"I think he's going to die," one of the doctors said.
But he wasn't dead yet.
The protectors stayed outside. The doctors rushed inside.
For the moment, anyway, this place was still a hospital.