Populist Iraq cleric demands action over COVID-19 isolation ward fire

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Populist Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr has warned he will hold the Iraqi government responsible if it fails to action over a devastating fire that killed scores of people in a COVID-19 isolation unit.

The warning comes just months before Iraq is scheduled to go to the polls in October for an early parliamentary election that was demanded by a protest movement backed by Sadr’s supporters.

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“It is incumbent on the government to work immediately to firmly and seriously punish those to blame for hospital fires, whether in Nasiriyah or other provinces, no matter their (political) affiliation,” Sadr tweeted late Tuesday.

“Otherwise, this government will be held responsible from its lowest to its highest (official).”

The devastating blaze swept through the COVID-19 isolation unit of Al-Hussein Hospital in the southern city of Nasiriyah on Monday evening,

The death toll rose to 92 on Tuesday, the Iraqi state news agency said. Two health officials said that more than 100 people were also injured in the fire.

Earlier, officials had said the fire was caused by an electric short circuit, but have not provided more details. Another official said the blaze erupted when an oxygen cylinder exploded. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.

The new ward, opened just three months ago, contained 70 beds.

It was the second such fire in Iraq in three months.

An April fire at a Baghdad COVID-19 hospital killed 82 people and was also blamed on the explosion of badly stored oxygen bottles.

That blaze triggered widespread anger and resulted in the suspension and subsequent resignation of then health minister Hassan al-Tamimi, a nominee of Sadr’s powerful political bloc.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi has ordered an investigation into Monday’s blaze “that will lead to those directly responsible”, his office said.

He already dismissed the hospital’s manager, the provincial health director and the local civil defense chief.

Arrest warrants have been issued for 13 officials, including the provincial health director.

Sadr demanded that the findings of the official inquiry be released quickly.

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“It must not end up like others conducted into previous hospital fires. Or else we have other means of protecting people’s safety and dignity.”

Demonstrations in honor of the victims were planned in Nasiriyah later after residents held a candle-lit vigil late on Tuesday.

(With input from agencies)

Read more:

Death toll from COVID-19 isolation ward fire climbs to 92: State news agency

Iraq health minister resigns over hospital fire that killed 80 people

Enraged relatives say neglect caused deadly Baghdad hospital fire

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