BAGHDAD -- In a city with few real refuges from sectarian violence -- not government offices, not military bases, not even mosques -- one place always emerged as a safe haven: hospitals.
So Mounthir Abbas Saud, whose right arm and jaw were ripped off when a car bomb exploded six months ago, must have thought the worst was over when he arrived at Ibn al-Nafis Hospital, a major medical center here.
Instead, it had just begun. A few days into his recovery at the facility, armed Shiite Muslim militiamen dragged the 43-year-old Sunni mason down the hallway floor, snapping intravenous needles and a breathing tube out of his body, and later riddled his body with bullets, family members said.
Authorities say it was not an isolated incident. In Baghdad these days, not even the hospitals are safe. In growing numbers, sick and wounded Sunnis have been abducted from public hospitals operated by Iraq's Shiite-run Health Ministry and later killed, according to patients, families of victims, doctors and government officials.
As a result, more and more Iraqis are avoiding hospitals, making it even harder to preserve life in a city where death is seemingly everywhere. Gunshot victims are now being treated by nurses in makeshift emergency rooms set up in homes. Women giving birth are smuggled out of Baghdad and into clinics in safer provinces.
In most cases, family members and hospital workers said, the motive for the abductions appeared to be nothing more than religious affiliation. Because public hospitals here are controlled by Shiites, the killings have raised questions about whether hospital staff have allowed Shiite death squads into their facilities to slaughter Sunni Arabs.
"We would prefer now to die instead of going to the hospitals," said Abu Nasr, 25, a Sunni cousin of Saud and former security guard from al-Madaan, a Baghdad suburb. "I will never go back to one. Never. The hospitals have become killing fields."
Three Health Ministry officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being killed for discussing such topics publicly, confirmed that Shiite militias have targeted Sunnis inside hospitals. Adel Muhsin Abdullah, the ministry's inspector general, said his investigations into complaints of hospital abductions have yielded no conclusive evidence. "But I don't deny that it may have happened," he said.
According to patients and families of victims, the primary group kidnapping Sunnis from hospitals is the Mahdi Army, a militia controlled by anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr that has infiltrated the Iraqi security forces and several government ministries. The minister of health, Ali al-Shimari, is a member of Sadr's political movement. In Baghdad today, it is often impossible to tell whether someone is a government official, a militia member or, as is often the case, both.
"When their uniforms are off, they are Sadr people," said Abu Mahdi, another of Saud's cousins. "When their uniforms are on, they are Ministry of Interior or Ministry of Health people."
Abdullah said only a small percentage of the Health Ministry's 30,000 employees are known members of the Mahdi Army. But he acknowledged that militia membership among personnel in the agency's 15,000-member security force might be much higher.
"I have no way of knowing if they are related to Sadr or not," Abdullah said. "If there is no criminal record, we hire them."
Sunnis' increasing suspicion of hospital workers is perhaps the most vivid illustration of their widespread distrust of the Shiite-led government. Suhaib al-Obeidi, 35, a supermarket owner from the heavily Sunni district of Adamiyah, said he lost his final ounce of confidence in the government during a brush with death in a hospital two weeks ago.
On a quiet weekday morning, as Obeidi unloaded canned chicken and Pepsi from a van and into his store, a gunfight broke out on the street and a spray of bullets struck him, he said -- first in his right shoulder, then in his back. As he tried to crawl away, another bored into his leg. A friend shoved his bleeding body into a taxi and took him to nearby al-Nuuman Hospital.
But when they arrived, a friendly doctor warned them that the Mahdi Army was coming to arrest Sunnis, Obeidi said. So they sneaked out to another hospital, Medical City in the Bab al -Muadam district, to get treatment.
"Tell me where you live!" a nurse at Medical City snapped at the arriving patients, Obeidi recalled, as the staff moved residents of mainly Sunni areas into a separate room.
A few moments later, he saw Mahdi Army troops handcuff five Sunni men who were donating blood -- including the friend who had brought him to the hospital -- and haul them out of the hospital, Obeidi said. A Sunni doctor ran up to him and said he would be killed unless he fled immediately.
Wearing only underwear and some bandages the doctor had applied to his wounds, Obeidi escaped in a taxi to the home of his in-laws in the upscale Mansour district. He lay in bed for an hour as he waited for the Sunni doctor to follow him from the hospital. The bed was drenched in so much blood that his family later dumped it in the trash.
"You were only a few minutes away from death," said the doctor, who arrived at the home an hour later. The doctor, one of the few Sunnis at Medical City, asked that his name not be used because he felt it would further endanger his life.
Inside an illegal clinic in a dingy apartment building, the doctor operated on Obeidi for seven hours. But Obeidi hasn't been able to get any follow-up treatment; he has vowed never to set foot in a hospital again, even if he is mortally wounded or deathly ill.
"I'd rather go to the pharmacy and take random simple medicine," he said.
The reluctance of Sunnis to enter hospitals is making it increasingly difficult to assess the number of casualties caused by sectarian violence. During a recent attack on Shiite pilgrims, a top Sunni political leader accused the Shiite-led government of ignoring large numbers of Sunnis who he said were also killed and wounded in the clash, though he was unable to offer even a rough estimate of the Sunni casualties.
"The situation is so bad that people are just treated inside their homes after being attacked by the Shia militias," said the official, Alaa Makki, a leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, part of the largest Sunni bloc in parliament. "The miserable fact is that most of the hospitals are controlled by these militias."
Qasim Yahya, a spokesman for the health minister, said he had never heard accusations that Sunnis have been taken from hospitals by Shiite militias or Iraqi security forces.
"We are the Health Ministry for all of Iraq. Not for Sunnis, not for Shiites. For everyone," Yahya said. "If a car bomb explosion takes place, do we ask who is Sunni or Shiite? No. We treat all victims, regardless of who they are or what sect they are."
Sahib al-Amiri, a leader in the Sadr movement, said: "These things that are being said in the Baghdad street are untrue. The Mahdi Army's only role is to fight the Sunni insurgents and protect the Shiites."
But the relatives of Sunni hospital patients tell a different story. In the case of Mounthir Abbas Saud, a trip to a hospital set off a chain of events that sparked an ongoing six-month-old drama in which two of his cousins are dead and two more are missing.
It started with cigarettes. As Saud strolled down a street in the Karrada district on Feb. 27 to buy a pack, a powerful car bomb wrenched his right arm off his body, ripped off much of his face and sprayed shrapnel into his lower intestines.
His prognosis was grim. Saud could breathe only with a tube that needed to be cleaned several times an hour. His family flocked to Ibn al-Nafis to watch over him.
Two weeks later, as Saud's cousin Hazim Aboud Saud returned to the hospital after a trip to buy medication for his wounded relative, he saw the facility surrounded by militiamen carrying machine guns, the family said. He watched as the gunmen removed the still severely wounded cousin from the building -- just dragging him on the ground instead of using a stretcher, his family said. The militia members loaded Saud, his brother Khodair and a cousin, Adil Aboud Saud, into an ambulance and drove away.
"They were screaming, 'We haven't done anything wrong! Why are you doing this?' " said Abu Nasr. "They begged the men to at least take care of my wounded cousin properly."
A few days later, Mounthir's bullet-riddled body was discovered in Sadr City, a Shiite slum controlled by the Mahdi Army. His mouth was stuffed with dirt.
When militiamen discovered that one of the cousins, Hazim Saud, a 32-year-old taxi driver, had witnessed the abductions, they quickly kidnapped him, his family said. His body was found March 27 with his hands -- broken and blue from apparent beatings -- bound behind his back and a plastic bag over his head. The death certificate said he had been suffocated.
But the family held out hope that the two men seized with Mounthir Saud -- Khodair and Adil Saud -- were still alive. When another cousin, Haithem Ali Abbas, a judge in Baghdad, received a call from the Shiite-controlled Interior Ministry that they had been located, he hurried to the ministry's headquarters to pick them up. He was shot to death by unknown gunmen shortly after he arrived.
The suffering extends even to those who now wouldn't dare enter a hospital. Abu Youssef, a cousin of Mounthir Saud who has a pea-size tumor in his right foot, now walks with a limp and acute pain because he is petrified to see a doctor. Another relative with a condition that causes overproduction of blood cells won't go for his normal treatments anymore.
On a recent weekday morning, Abu Nasr sat in a quiet restaurant in central Baghdad and pulled out a crumpled envelope filled with death certificates and photographs of his recently killed relatives. Sighing heavily and staring frequently at the dirty ground, he said he prayed that someone would rescue the country from the sectarian violence that is ravaging it.
"We don't care whether the government is Shiite, Sunni, American or Iranian. All we want is security and safety," he said. "But no one in the government represents that now."
When asked whether Iraq has already descended into civil war, he said: "Of course. All the Shiites want to do is kill all the Sunnis."
"What is going to happen to us?" he said as he clutched a tiny photo of his dead cousin Mounthir. "What is going to happen to this country?"