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‘A Fire Happened in the Newborn Unit, and Your Baby Died’

BAGHDAD — If there were one safe place in Iraq, it should be a hospital nursery, locked down for the night with dozens of babies nestled inside.

But here, not even that is a given. When a fire started late Tuesday night in the maternity wing of one of Baghdad’s main hospitals, it quickly engulfed the babies’ room. And then, in another Iraqi tragedy in a horrifying line of preventable ones, nothing worked.

Hospital workers raced to save the infants, but no one could find the keys to unlock the nursery. Inexplicably, no nurses seemed to be inside. Apparently, none of the fire extinguishers functioned. It took nearly an hour and a half for firefighters to arrive.

Some thought the initial cause may have been an oxygen tank explosion that set off an electrical fire. But on Wednesday morning, only one thing was certain: At least 13 infants were dead, and with them a small piece of Iraq’s future.

There was Yaman Muaad, a baby boy born by cesarean section on Tuesday who died a few hours later. There was Jafar Kahtan, a baby being treated for breathing difficulties. There was Zahra Hussein, a baby girl born on Monday, whose grandfather was frantically looking for her on Wednesday.

Many more were still unaccounted for. And at least 25 people, mostly infants, were being treated for burns or smoke inhalation.

All Iraqi officials could manage was what they typically do in the face of tragedy: establish a committee.

“A committee has been formed to investigate the incident, and so far we don’t know the reasons of the incident,” Dr. Ahmed al-Hadari, a spokesman for the Health Ministry, said at a news conference on Wednesday. “We are waiting the results of the investigations.”

After years of unsolved tragedy and unanswered demands for improvements, hardly anyone here believes official promises anymore.

“Such tragedies have become normal to Iraqi officials, and this case will be closed, just as the other ones,” said Adnan Hussein, the acting editor in chief at Al Mada, one of Baghdad’s daily newspapers.

In their agony and tears as they gathered outside Yarmouk hospital on Wednesday morning, families of the dead babies were inconsolable. Some even made accusations of arson, though there was no evidence to support that claim.

“There was screaming,” said Mariam Thijeel, the mother of Yaman, describing the scene at the hospital early Wednesday. “The power was cut off, and then the doors got locked on us, and there was no man in the newborn section, and we could not save any babies.”

She described a scene of panic and chaos, and said that people in the hospital had tried desperately to find someone with keys to the hospital wing that was on fire, the doors of which were locked. “We asked the help of one of the employees, but she said, ‘I cannot help you with anything, because it’s a fire,’ ” Ms. Thijeel said.

Zainab Ali, Jafar’s mother, said: “Today I have come to see him and I was told, ‘A fire happened in the newborn unit, and your baby died.’” She said she had heard that none of the fire extinguishers worked.

A third mother, Shayma Husain, came to the hospital looking for her infant son, Haider Mohammad Azeez, who had not been accounted for. Angry and tearful, she compared the leaders of the government-run hospital to the militants of the Islamic State — saying, in effect, that politicians and terrorists were both responsible for Iraq’s endless trauma.

Painful reminders of the Iraqi state’s degradation are all around. The United States spent tens of billions of dollars of reconstruction money in Iraq to build hospitals and schools and improve electricity. Yet the lights are on just a few hours a day from the public grid. Generators, if Iraqis can afford them, provide the rest. Hospitals are facing deprivation not seen since the economic sanctions of the 1990s, in part because plummeting oil prices have left the government impoverished in the middle of a war against the Islamic State.

“The structure of the system of the state is wrongly built, and there is no seriousness in building state institutions,” said Ahmed Saadawi, a prominent writer who chronicled Baghdad’s tragedies in his prizewinning novel, “Frankenstein in Baghdad.”

Many Iraqis say the state’s dysfunction is caused by a political system the Americans helped establish that is based on sectarian quotas. People are given jobs in ministries based on patronage and sect, not competence, and corruption is rampant.

And then bad things happen, like a fire breaking out in a hospital maternity ward and terrorists driving car bombs through checkpoints staffed by police officers with fake bomb detectors.

“We have good medical competence and good doctors, but there are problems and defects in the state administration,” Mr. Saadawi said. “They always put the wrong people in the important places.”

The last big news out of Iraq was a devastating truck bomb last month in Baghdad that killed close to 300 people, the worst terrorist attack in the capital since the American invasion of 2003. The bombing set off an inferno that engulfed a shopping mall where families and young people were celebrating one of the last nights of the holy month of Ramadan — eating with friends, shopping, watching a big soccer game on television.

In that attack, many more died from the fire than from the bomb blast, and in the aftermath officials blamed poor safety procedures and a lack of fire exits for the number of deaths.

Like the bombing, the fire at the hospital would probably have been less deadly had the government put in place adequate safety measures or responded sooner.

“I was at the incident today and saw the disaster with my own eyes,” said Mohammed al-Rubaie, a member of the security committee on Baghdad’s provincial council. “There was clear negligence from the administration of the hospital, and there were no safety measures.”

There were no protests in Baghdad on Wednesday as there were after last month’s terrorist attack, only muted outrage and a tragic sense of familiarity.

One man, Mohammed Sameer, wrote on Facebook, “A crime after a crime, death followed by death, and the government keeps silent.”

He added, “Oh my God, what a big crime today.”

There was also the usual violence on Tuesday and Wednesday, the sort that has long been a feature of the city’s routines. According to the Interior Ministry, a suicide car bombing at a checkpoint in the neighborhood of Dora killed four soldiers and injured 11 people; a roadside bomb killed four people at a public market in the Nahrawan district; and a suicide bomber killed four soldiers in the Rasheed district.

As Mr. Hussein, the newspaper editor, put it: There is “no safe place in Iraq at all.”

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(via NY Times)