Iraq fire: Things don't have to be this way

Arrests and investigations after another avoidable loss of life must be followed by deeper action to tackle negligence and mismanagement

A firefighter inspects the hall in Qaraqosh, northern Iraq, where a blaze killed at least 100 people at a wedding party on Tuesday night. AFP
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The sudden and unexpected death of a loved one can be a profoundly traumatising experience. When that death is preventable or caused by negligence, such trauma is compounded by the knowledge that things did not have to be this way.

The suffering of those bereaved by the fire at a wedding hall in the northern Iraqi town of Qaraqosh (also known as Al Hamdaniya) on Wednesday night is unimaginable. The Qaraqosh fire needn’t have happened. Harrowing footage of the incident shows fireworks at the celebrations setting the roof on fire. Questions have since been raised about the construction material used in the building and civil defence officials quoted by the Iraqi News Agency have described the wedding hall's exterior as being decorated with highly flammable – and illegal – cladding. There have been several arrests – including that of the building’s owner. Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman Gen Saad Maan said an “absence of safety and security measures plus using fireworks” led to the incident.

Although an investigation is necessary and welcome, the sad reality is that corruption and mismanagement are rife in Iraq, a country where so many preventable deaths have taken place. In 2021, a hospital fire in Nasiriyah claimed 92 lives. In July this year, four people died in Karbala during a religious ceremony when gas canisters caught fire and exploded. In the same month, electricity was cut off in Basra after a fire at a power plant. According to the General Directorate of Civil Defence, in 2022 alone there were more than 32,400 recorded fire incidents in Iraq, most of them in Baghdad.

And it is not just fires that pose a threat. Lax safety practices have cost lives elsewhere, such as in 2019 when an overcrowded ferry near the city of Mosul capsized and sank, killing more than 100 people and leading to angry protests against the local authorities.

All this points to an urgent and critical need for the government to enforce the country’s rules on fire safety, responsible construction and reliable transport. Arrests and investigations are welcome, but these do not go far enough. Deeper action is needed if such scenes are not to be repeated.

Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani recently told The National that his government’s biggest challenge was “gaining the trust of the people”. It may be too late for the people of Qaraqosh but taking firm action to show that the Iraqi authorities are serious about not only punishing the guilty but also confronting a culture of corruption, corner-cutting and negligence would go some way to earning that trust.

Published: September 28, 2023, 3:00 AM