Iraqi Parliament questions officials over fatal hospital fire

Authorities face accusations of negligence and corruption after dozens died in the fire

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Iraq’s Parliament questioned the governor of the southern province of Dhi Qar on Wednesday about a fire that engulfed the coronavirus ward of a hospital, killing dozens of people.

Al Hussein hospital in Nasiriyah was set up at the beginning of the pandemic. Officials have not yet said what caused the blaze, but media reports say an oxygen tank exploded.

“Parliament will question the governor of Dhi Qar and the committee that was formed to investigate the fire in the Constitutional Hall on Wednesday afternoon,” Parliamentary Speaker Mohammed Al Halbousi said before the session.

“They will be questioned so that we discover the areas that were neglected and find out the culprits behind this,” Mr Al Halbousi said.

Authorities have faced accusations of negligence and corruption from mourners and the wider public.

Parliamentarian Sarkawt Shamsuldin told The National the questioning would either result in Governor Yahia Nasseri being dismissed or a full hearing into his actions, but no announcement was made immediately after the session.

Iraqi medical officials said 92 people died in the fire and dozens more were injured, but the Health Ministry said on Wednesday that the death toll was 60.

“After completing the procedures of civil defence and forensics in the province,” 39 bodies have been identified and 21 remain unidentified, the ministry said.

“Necessary measures are being taken to determine the identities of the unidentified bodies, and this will be announced once the necessary forensic medical procedures are completed,” it said.

A national health council must be formed to supervise and monitor health institutions, which should be ruled by local governments instead of the central government in Baghdad, Ali Al Bayati, a member of the Iraqi High Commission of Human Rights, told The National.

“Getting this sector out of political interests … and ensuring that decision makers are held accountable is also very important,” Mr Al Bayati said.

Hours after the fire began rescue teams continued to search for those missing from the ward.

Rescue workers and bystanders were seen lifting rubble and metal plates in the search for survivors and victims. Some were looking for body parts.

Abbas Nael, a Nasiriyah resident, said Iraqi politicians must visit the site themselves to see the devastation.

“My message to the authorities is that you are negligent and should be held to account, it is a shame you are still alive while our beloved ones have gone,” Mr Nael told The National.

“We ask local authorities to provide us with lorries so we can remove rubble and find the missing bodies, but no one has responded to our request,” Mr Nael said, as tears rolled down his cheeks.

Hundreds of young people lit candles at the site of the hospital late on Tuesday.

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi had called for an investigation into the fire and gave an order for the health directors of the province and hospital to be arrested.

Mr Al Kadhimi said the findings of the investigation would be released within a week.

There was an “urgent need to launch a comprehensive administrative reform process in the Health Ministry”, he said.

The most important reform will be the separation of administrative work from political influence, he said.

The blaze came as Iraq faced another wave of Covid-19 cases, with daily infections rising to between 7,000 and 10,000. About 1 per cent of the country's population has been vaccinated against the disease.

In April, a fire at Ibn Al Khatib Hospital in the capital Baghdad started when oxygen tanks exploded.

At least 82 people were killed, but no senior officials were held accountable after an investigation.

Updated: July 15, 2021, 7:53 PM