Baquba Denied the Healing Touch

BAQUBA — Diyala General Hospital in the provincial capital Baquba has been hit by severe lack of supplies amid ongoing attacks by militants.

Located 50km northeast of Baghdad, the city of Baquba has become known now for both the huge U.S. military operations and the presence of al-Qaeda.

The shortages coupled with a lack of basic infrastructure have left the largest hospital in Diyala province short of supplies, and staffed by terrorised doctors often unable to do their job.

Diyala General Hospital, built in the 1970’s, was never adequately resourced since the devastating Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and the dozen years of economic sanctions since the early 1990s.

When the U.S.-led occupation began in April 2003, administrators promised reconstruction and rehabilitation of Iraq’s healthcare system. It never came. This hospital, like countless others in Iraq, is in a far worse condition today than even during the sanctions period when more than half a million Iraqi children died from malnutrition, disease and lack of adequate healthcare.

The problems appear to begin and end with lack of security.

“One day, a number of Iraqi army casualties caused by a suicide car bomb were brought to the hospital by a military patrol,” Mohammed Ali, a 39-year-old orthopaedic surgeon told IPS. “The soldiers began to insult the staff, and hit two physicians after ordering them to leave other patients and treat the wounded soldiers first.”

Doctors announced a strike, Ali said. “A few days later the head of the physicians syndicate called an end to the strike after intervention by the mayor.”

But doctors have continued to face abuse, Nasseer Adil, a 42-year-old pathologist told IPS. “It has become very normal that any person can come and insult anyone in the hospital.”

Over time, the abuse and threats have driven many doctors to leave their job, and when they can, the country.

“The staff members began to come to work intermittently, and sometimes we could hardly see one physician in the whole hospital,” Haleem Kareem, a 46-year-old receptionist at the hospital told IPS.

Dr Ahmed Shibad, a 30-year-old orthopaedic surgeon, fled the hospital for Syria four months ago after he said he received death threats from Iraqi soldiers backed by U.S. forces.

During an interview with IPS in Damascus in May he said, “The Iraqi forces who regularly came into the hospital to order us around and abuse us were supported by the American military. The American soldiers watched the Iraqis do this to us, and this is another reason why I left.”

By October 2006, 18,000 Iraqi doctors, over half of all doctors in Iraq, had fled the country, according to a report by Radio Free Europe.

Now many people in Baquba go to private clinics in hope of better treatment – and security. But while the main hospital offers free treatment, private clinics can be expensive.

Violence continues to plague the Baquba hospital. “The fighters used to attack Iraqi army soldiers who used to bring their casualties and bodies to the hospital,” Hadi Sadeq, a 40-year-old official in the emergency unit told IPS. “For this reason staff quit, and people in need of treatment stopped to come.”

Complicating matters further has been corruption within Iraq’s Ministry of Health in Baghdad.

The ministry, which has been run by officials loyal to Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, has been accused of favouring Shia areas in Iraq. Baquba, a mixed area, has been considered a Sunni area by the ministry.

Doctors at Diyala General Hospital told IPS they believe that the Heath Ministry has hindered the supply of medical equipment and supplies to their hospital for sectarian reasons.

“The Diyala director-general of health was kidnapped in the building of the Health Ministry itself, and was later killed in Sadr city,” Majid Ibrahim, a 48-year-old ophthalmologist told IPS. “It is a well-known incident, admitted even by the health minister, Dr Ali al-Shamary.”

A hospital worker, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IPS that lately the government has been trying to increase protection for the hospital but that “unfortunately, the guards are all Shia.”

(*Ahmed, our correspondent in Iraq’s Diyala province, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who travels extensively in the region.)