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Iraqi Hospital Fire In Coronavirus Ward Kills Over 90 People

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In Iraq, the death toll continues to climb in the aftermath of a fire that engulfed the coronavirus ward of a hospital. Iraqi medical officials say more than 90 people have died, scores more were injured. And this comes as Iraq experiences another surge in the coronavirus pandemic. NPR's Ruth Sherlock has this report from Beirut.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Videos from the scene of the fire at the al-Hussein Teaching Hospital in Nasiriyah city in southern Iraq show firefighters silhouetted by the flames that engulfed whole buildings.

MOHSEN SABR OBEID: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Reached by phone, federal civil servant Mohsen Sabr Obeid tells us he lives close to the hospital. So when the fire broke out, he ran down to help. But when he got there, he found the flames were too intense.

OBEID: (Through interpreter) I didn't know what to do. I felt the flames on my face and tried every way to enter the building to save even just one soul, but I couldn't because the fire was so strong and the smoke even stronger. I could hear the screams of people inside, but I couldn't reach them.

SHERLOCK: Officials have suggested that the fire may have been caused by an electrical fault or an exploding oxygen cylinder. For many Iraqis, though, this tragedy is symptomatic of the wider failures of their government. Videos show hundreds of furious demonstrators outside the flaming hospital. They shout, political parties burned us. This is the second fire in a COVID-19 hospital ward in Iraq in just three months. A fire in Baghdad's Ibn al-Khatib Hospital in April killed 82 people.

RENAD MANSOUR: It shows you that, at the end of the day, it's the people who are the ultimate victims of corruption.

SHERLOCK: Renad Mansour is a senior fellow in the Middle East program of the Chatham House think tank in the U.K. He says chronic corruption in Iraq's ministries is resulting in underfunded, badly managed and fundamentally unsafe government services.

MANSOUR: You have a political elite that have become incredibly wealthy through politically sanctioned corruption, but haven't done much to building a state, to building a country that could provide the very basic services for their people.

SHERLOCK: Iraq's prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, has called for an investigation into the fire, and he's ordered the arrest of the health directors of the province and hospital where the fire happened. Meanwhile, in the last week, there have been nearly 60,000 new coronavirus cases and only about one percent of Iraq's population is fully vaccinated.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.