Patrick Cockburn: Hospitals now a battleground in the bloody civil war

Share

Iraqi hospitals are dangerous places. Policemen and soldiers carry their wounded comrades into operating theatres and demand immediate treatment, forcing doctors at gunpoint to abandon operations on civilians before they are completed. The hospital system is not a haven from the war. The Health Ministry is controlled by the supporters of the nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr who did well in the elections in December.

Intelligence officers claim hospitals are now being used by al-Sadr's Mehdi Army militia as its headquarters and hospital basements are used as prisons.

Sunni Arabs are nervous of even going to the central Baghdad morgue to look for their dead because they fear they may be targeted by Shia gunmen. One Sunni who took his brother to the morgue was asked: "Do you know who killed him?" When he answered: "Yes" he was immediately shot dead. Many people with bullet wounds fear entering a hospital on the grounds that they will be accused of being an insurgent.

Once I saw several badly wounded police commandos carried into Yarmouk hospital in west Baghdad. Even those bleeding badly refused to be parted from their machine-guns and would not allow doctors to take off their black face masks.

The Iraqi health system is breaking down. Thirty years ago, it was one of the best in the Middle East. But ever since 1980, the country's oil revenues have all been devoted to buying military equipment. Almost no new hospitals were built. From the start of UN economic sanctions against Iraq in 1990, medical care plummeted further.

Old medical equipment broke down and was not replaced. Once, when travelling north of Baghdad, I was besieged by local farmers who thought I was a foreign doctor and demanded I look at their children. Many of them were carrying dusty old X-rays taken years earlier. The local medical centre had closed.

At another old hospital on the outskirts of Baghdad, the hospital forecourt was packed with vehicles - ambulances and trucks - that no longer moved. Many were without wheels or tyres. The doctors were desperate to obtain an oxygen tank but they had no vehicle to pick it up from another part of the capital.

Doctors were paid very little and only kept going buy opening private clinics. Their pay went up after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. But the facilities in which they worked were dilapidated. It was only possible to reach the front door of one of the main children's hospitals in Baghdad by jumping over a stream of raw sewage. Iraqis who were well off increasingly went to Jordan for treatment.

Doctors faced another threat. They were prime targets for kidnappers because they were known to have some money. They had to operate more or less openly even if the doors of their clinics were heavily barred. They were also targets for assassination. Many clinics were closed as doctors fled abroad. By this summer, 220 doctors had been killed and more than 1,000 had fled Iraq.

One friend who had a toothache rang dentist after dentist to ask for an appointment. Either the phone was not answered or he was told that the dentist had left the country.

It is not just the decline in the medical system that has hit Iraqi health. It is the rise in general impoverishment. The Ministry of Labour says that the level of poverty is up by 35 per cent since 2003 and 5.6 million Iraqis live below the poverty line: "At least 40 per cent of this number is living in absolutely desperate conditions."

Three years ago, half the country's population had access to drinkable water. The figure now has dropped to 32 per cent.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: A royal serving the nation

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
David Cameron met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko prior to the start of the European Council Summit in Brussels last month  

David Cameron talks big but is waving a small stick at the Russian bear

Kim Sengupta
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn