President Barham Salih described the tragedy as a “wound for the whole nation,” while Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi announced an investigation, declared three days of national mourning and suspended top health officials.
Iraq is in the worst phase of its coronavirus pandemic, averaging around 8,000 new cases daily as the health system struggles to cope. The country’s human rights commission said that 28 of the patients killed in the fire had been on life support when the smoke and flames reached their ward.
Video surveillance footage showed a desperate scramble to save lives. Hospital staff dived into the blazing ward to drag out patients. Local residents joined rescue efforts through the night, using light from their cellphones to illuminate the wreckage.
Throughout the pandemic, Iraq’s Health Ministry has focused its public pronouncements on the number of new intensive care beds and ventilators that it says it has procured to ease strain on the system.
But it has done little to improve existing infrastructure, and doctors have feared for the patients they treat in run-down wards where electricity cables have at times sparked visibly from the ceilings. In 2019, Iraq allocated just 2.5 percent of its $106.5 billion budget to its Health Ministry.
Preliminary reports suggested that Saturday’s fire emanated from a pile of haphazardly stored oxygen cylinders, which turned the intensive care ward into an inferno. The hospital has no sprinklers or smoke detectors, said Maj. Gen. Kadhim Bohan, a spokesman for Iraq’s civil defense force, adding that the blaze spread faster because the false ceilings were flammable.
He said his organization had repeatedly recommended that government buildings adopt better safety precautions. “No one is listening,” Bohan said.
Medical staff at Ibn al-Khatib hospital said the fire could easily have occurred in any other government hospital. “They all have the same ceilings, the same faulty electric wires,” said one doctor, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “There’s no fire-escape plan, no fire extinguishers.”
The Health Ministry had issued no statement on the deaths as of Sunday and did not respond to requests for comment.
Kadhimi assumed office last year on a reformist platform, promising to tackle corruption and vested political interests. He has made little progress: Iraq’s political system is structured in a way that leaves the prime minister dependent on the same powers that critics blame for the rampant corruption that is corroding Iraqi institutions.
Speaking at an emergency meeting at the headquarters of Baghdad Operations Command, a coordinating body for Iraq’s security forces, the prime minister described Saturday’s fire as a product of “negligence.”
Kadhimi announced an investigation and suspended the director general of eastern Baghdad’s health department, which is responsible for Ibn al-Khatib hospital, as well as the facility’s head and director of engineering and maintenance.
Health Minister Hassan al-Tamimi also was suspended. But his future remained unclear. Tamimi is backed by influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a key player in Iraq’s political system.
In a statement, Sadr appeared to suggest that the blast might have been part of a deliberate effort to undermine his party ahead of elections scheduled for October. He said the prime minister should remove Tamimi from his post should he be found at fault.
As the scale of the destruction at the hospital became clear Sunday, foreign diplomats issued condolences to the families of the victims. The top United Nations official in Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, expressed “shock and pain.”
“The Special Representative calls for stronger protection measures to ensure that such a disaster cannot reoccur,” her statement read.
Salih, the president, said the fire was a result of “the accumulated destruction of state institutions due to corruption and mismanagement.”
“Showing pain and sympathy with our martyrs and injured sons is not enough without strenuous accountability for the negligent, and without conducting a comprehensive and serious review,” he said.
At Ibn al-Khatib, there was little hope that things will improve.
“The whole system is broken,” the doctor who spoke on the condition of anonymity said. “I’m a doctor, and I’m serious when I say that people should die in their homes instead of here. At least they’ll be … in one piece.”