Thursday, August 31, 2006

Violation of trust in Iraq: Hospitals new "killing fields"

BAGHDAD, Iraq — In a city with few real refuges from sectarian violence — not government offices, not military bases, not even mosques — one place always emerged as a safe haven: hospitals.

So Mounthir Abbas Saud, whose right arm and jaw were ripped off when a car bomb exploded six months ago, must have thought the worst was over when he arrived at Ibn al-Nafis Hospital, a major medical center here.

Instead, it had just begun.

A few days into his recovery at the facility, armed Shiite Muslim militiamen dragged the 43-year-old Sunni mason down the hall, snapping intravenous needles and a breathing tube out of his body, and later riddled his body with bullets, family members said.

Authorities say it was not an isolated incident. In Baghdad these days, not even the hospitals are safe. In growing numbers, sick and wounded Sunnis have been abducted from public hospitals operated by Iraq's Shiite-run Health Ministry and later killed, according to patients, families of victims, doctors and government officials.

As a result, more and more Iraqis are avoiding hospitals, making it harder to preserve life in a city where death is seemingly everywhere. Gunshot victims are now being treated by nurses in makeshift emergency rooms set up in homes. Women giving birth are smuggled out of Baghdad and into clinics in safer provinces.

In most cases, family members and hospital workers said, the motive appeared to be nothing more than religious affiliation.

Because public hospitals here are controlled by Shiites, the killings have raised questions about whether hospital staff have allowed Shiite death squads into their facilities to slaughter Sunni Arabs.

"We would prefer now to die instead of going to the hospitals," said Abu Nasr, 25, a Sunni cousin of Saud and former security guard from al-Madaan, a Baghdad suburb. "I will never go back to one. Never. The hospitals have become killing fields."

Three Health Ministry officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Shiite militias have targeted Sunnis inside hospitals. Adel Muhsin Abdullah, the ministry's inspector general, said his investigations into complaints of hospital abductions have yielded no conclusive evidence. "But I don't deny that it may have happened," he said.

According to patients and families of victims, the primary group kidnapping Sunnis from hospitals is the Mahdi Army, a militia controlled by anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr that has infiltrated the Iraqi security forces and several government ministries. The minister of health, Ali al-Shimari, is a member of al-Sadr's political movement.

In Baghdad today, it is often impossible to tell whether someone is a government official, a militia member or, as is often the case, both.

"When their uniforms are off, they are Sadr people," said Abu Mahdi, another of Saud's cousins. "When their uniforms are on, they are Ministry of Interior or Ministry of Health people."

Sunnis' increasing suspicion of hospital workers is perhaps the most vivid illustration of their widespread distrust of the Shiite-led government.

And their reluctance to enter hospitals is making it increasingly difficult to assess the number of casualties caused by sectarian violence.

During a recent attack on Shiite pilgrims, a top Sunni political leader accused the government of ignoring large numbers of Sunnis who he said were also killed and wounded in the clash, though he was unable to offer even a rough estimate of the Sunni casualties.

"The situation is so bad that people are just treated inside their homes after being attacked by the Shia militias," said the official, Alaa Makki, a leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, part of the largest Sunni bloc in parliament. "The miserable fact is that most of the hospitals are controlled by these militias."

Qasim Yahya, a spokesman for the health minister, said he had never heard accusations that Sunnis have been taken from hospitals by Shiite militias or Iraqi security forces.

"We are the Health Ministry for all of Iraq. Not for Sunnis, not for Shiites. For everyone," Yahya said. But the relatives of Sunni hospital patients tell a different story.

In the case of Mounthir Abbas Saud, a trip to a hospital set off a chain of events that sparked an ongoing, six-month-old drama in which two of his cousins are dead and two more are missing.

It started with cigarettes. As Saud strolled down a street in the Karrada district Feb. 27 to buy a pack, a car bomb wrenched his right arm off his body, tore into his face and sprayed shrapnel into his lower intestines.

His prognosis was grim, and his family flocked to Ibn al-Nafis to watch over him.

Two weeks later, Saud's cousin, Hazim Aboud Saud, watched as gunmen dragged the still severely wounded man from the building, his family said. The militia members loaded Saud, his brother Khodair and a cousin, Adil Aboud Saud, into an ambulance and drove away.

A few days later, Mounthir Saud's bullet-riddled body was discovered in Sadr City, a Shiite slum controlled by the Mahdi Army. His mouth was stuffed with dirt.

When militiamen discovered that Hazim Saud had witnessed the abductions, they quickly kidnapped him, his family said. His body was found March 27 with his hands — broken and blue from apparent beatings — bound behind his back and a plastic bag over his head. The death certificate said he had been suffocated.

But the family held out hope that the two men seized with Mounthir Saud — Khodair and Adil Saud — were still alive.

When another cousin, Haithem Ali Abbas, a judge in Baghdad, received a call from the Shiite-controlled Interior Ministry that they had been located, he hurried to pick them up. He was shot to death shortly after he arrived.

"We don't care whether the government is Shiite, Sunni, American or Iranian. All we want is security and safety," Abu Nasr said. "But no one in the government represents that now."

"What is going to happen to us?" he said as he clutched a tiny photo of his dead cousin Mounthir. "What is going to happen to this country?"

Seattle Times


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