A hospital fire in southern Iraq that killed 92 people Tuesday has led Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi to order the arrest of health administrators.
There is no official word yet on the cause of the blaze, but reports suggested it could have been sparked by an oxygen tank explosion on a Covid-19 ward.
Both the prime minister and the president blamed the fire on corruption and political interference in the management of the hospital, and vowed to take action.
The death toll rose throughout Tuesday as teams cleared the building and doctors at nearby hospitals treated the wounded. Iraqi state news agency put the death toll at 92 by early evening, with nearly 70 injured.
Mr Al Kadhimi held urgent meetings with senior ministers and ordered the suspension and arrest of the facility's head as well as health and civil defence managers at the hospital in the southern city of Nasiriyah, his office said.
He opened an immediate investigation and said the findings would be published within a week.
“We will not tolerate corrupt people or those who manipulate the lives of citizens, regardless of their affiliation,” Mr Al Kadhimi said.
He said there was an “urgent need to launch a comprehensive administrative reform process in the Health Ministry". Mr Al Kadhimi said the most important reform would be to separate administrative work from political influence.
In April, health minister Hassan Al Tamimi resigned after a fire at a Baghdad hospital, caused by an oxygen tank explosion, which killed 82 and injured 110. He was not replaced.
Mr Al Kadhimi said on Tuesday that he had presented a candidate to parliament for approval.
Authorities were unable to immediately identify 30 of the bodies due to the extent of the burns, said Ali Al Bayati, a member of Iraq's Human Rights Commission.
“The absence of accountability and punishment as well as impunity encourages officials to not care for safety measures in such institutions, so that's why the fire happened,” Mr Al Bayati told The National.
“We insist the government reopen the investigation into corruption in the Health Ministry since 2003 and bring those responsible to account because it's an accumulation of negligence and corruption,” he said.
Iraq's ministries have an inspector general responsible for investigating corruption, but they are widely seen as being powerless to prosecute officials.
A 2014 UN report on countering corruption in Iraq found that the inspector generals' offices were often undermined “by personal and political arbitrary interventions and tribal loyalties”.
Iraq's hospitals were struggling to provide quality care even before the Covid-19 pandemic. The health care system has been wrecked by years of mismanagement, a lack of accountability, violence and factionalism since the US-led invasion in 2003 and before that by years of sanctions.
Witnesses described fire crews battling the blaze in the hospital's Covid-19 wards as it spread quickly through the building.
“Raging fires have trapped many patients inside the coronavirus ward and rescue teams are struggling to reach them,” a health worker said before entering the burning building.
“I heard a big explosion inside the coronavirus wards and then the fire had erupted very quickly,” said Ali Muhsin, a hospital guard who was helping to carry wounded patients away from the fire.
Health officials in Nasiriyah said search operations at Al Hussein Hospital continued after the fire was brought under control, but thick smoke was making it difficult to enter some wards.
Images and videos circulated online of relatives of the victims protesting outside the hospital.
They set fire to two police vehicles.
“Corrupt officials must be held accountable for the fire and killing innocent patients. Where is my father's body?” asked a young man as he searched among charred remains wrapped in blankets in the hospital yard.
Iraqi President Barham Salih condemned corruption and mismanagement in the nation’s institutions that he said led to the disaster.
"The catastrophe of Al Hussein Hospital, and before that at the Ibn Al Khatib Hospital in Baghdad, are the product of persistent corruption and mismanagement that undervalued the lives of Iraqis and prevented reforms to [improve] performance of institutions,” he said.
“A strict review of the performance of institutions and the protection of citizens is necessary.”
Iraqi Parliament Speaker Mohammed Al Halbousi tweeted that the blaze was “clear proof of the failure to protect Iraqi lives". He said it was "time to put an end to this catastrophic failure".
The UN Special Envoy to Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, sent her condolences to the families of the victims.
“More must be done to ensure all Iraqis can receive care in a safe environment,” she wrote on Twitter.