Iraq doctors say vendettas threaten their lives as they save others

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Iraqi family physician Shaymaa al-Kamali speaks at her practice in Baghdad on Jan. 29, 2019. (AFP)
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Doctors, nurses, and other health workers across Iraq say they regularly risk being physically harassed, verbally threatened, and even kidnapped while on the job. (AFP)
Updated 28 February 2019

Iraq doctors say vendettas threaten their lives as they save others

  • Threats against medical workers are Iraq is blamed on the longstanding tradition of personal gun ownership in the country, which is ravaged by decades of violence
  • Many doctors have opted to leave Iraq for safer hospitals abroad

BAGHDAD: In Iraq, medicine is a matter of life or death — not just for patients, but for doctors facing threats by vengeful relatives and emigrating en masse.
Shaymaa Al-Kamali, a family physician in Baghdad, said her problems began when she barred a patient’s father from staying in the hospital after visiting hours.
Furious and carrying arms, their relatives stormed her clinic in protest, and she had to flee through a service entrance.
“I took off my doctor’s coat and ran out with a colleague. We got into a taxi as if I was his wife and not a doctor like him,” Kamali told AFP.
“I didn’t go back to work for ten days.”
Doctors, nurses, and other health workers across Iraq say they regularly risk being physically harassed, verbally threatened, and even kidnapped while on the job.
They blame this on the longstanding tradition of personal gun ownership in Iraq, a country ravaged by decades of violence.
And because of the retaliatory form of justice relied on by tribes — which often trumps federal law — some doctors had to pay as much as $45,000 to settle vendettas with patients’ families, said Kamali.
As a result of this violent and chaotic situation, many doctors have opted to leave Iraq for safer hospitals abroad — something 32-year-old Kamali is herself increasingly considering.
Of the 348 doctors who graduated with her in 2009 from medical school 285 have already left the country “mainly because of these assaults,” she said.

“These kinds of attacks are a common occurrence in every Iraqi province,” said Sahar Mawlud, pharmacist and deputy health director in Salaheddin province.
“Sometimes, patients are already dying by the time they arrive to the hospital. But when they die, their families accuse medics of not doing their jobs,” she told AFP.
In the northern province of Kirkuk a health worker was physically assaulted while treating a critically ill 70-year-old in February, according to the World Health Organization.
“Such attacks constitute a serious violation of international humanitarian law,” warned Adham Rashad Ismail, the head of WHO in Iraq.
And further south in oil-rich Basra, gastroenterologist Hussein Uday said doctors, particularly those specializing in cardiac surgery or neurology, were emigrating in droves pushed by “fear” of reprisals.
In total, around 20,000 doctors have fled Iraq in the last 15 years, according to a joint study conducted by the International Committee for the Red Cross, Iraq’s health ministry and other medical organizations.
It found 70 percent of Iraqi health personnel are considering emigrating out of fear of reprisals, kidnapping or killing.
“Iraq is left facing a vast shortage of doctors,” said health ministry spokesman Seif Al-Badr.
In 2017, there were just nine doctors for every 10,000 people in Iraq, or three times less than in neighboring Kuwait and two times less that conflict-ridden Libya, said the WHO.
But the problem facing the health sector goes beyond staffing woes.
Iraq’s health infrastructure was ravaged by back-to-back conflicts and more than a decade of international sanctions until the US-led invasion against Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Sectarian violence followed, culminating in the three-year battle against the Daesh group that ended in 2017.

Those difficult years shattered Iraq’s reputation as a medical hub in the region, and there is no more striking example of that fall than Baghdad’s Medical City.
The health complex was one of the most advanced in the region in the 1970s, but its clinics are now shockingly short on equipment and medicine, and its buildings falling into disrepair.
ICRC chief Peter Maurer said pressure on doctors was gutting the basic tenets of the medical profession.
“We are concerned not only by direct attacks on the medical installations,” he said during a recent trip to Iraq.
“We are also concerned about tribalism and sectarianism entering the basic Hippocratic Oath of treating patients equally, depending on the seriousness and the urgency of the illness and not depending on the origin, or the ethnic belonging or the faith of a person or group,” he added.
Doctors are so afraid for their safety, they are taking to the streets to demand a 2013 law allowing health workers to carry arms inside their workplace be activated.
“This is a necessary law. It’s for self-defense,” said Abdulamir Al-Shammary, head of Iraq’s doctors syndicate.
Some lawmakers have proposed including crimes against doctors under Iraq’s anti-terrorism law, which could bring the death penalty.
“There is no rule of law. Here, it’s the law of the jungle” that prevails, Kamali said.
But even so, she and other doctors continue to go to work, hoping hospitals would remain havens for saving lives.


Iraq protests swell as UN presses Baghdad to ‘step up’

Updated 5 min 22 sec ago

Iraq protests swell as UN presses Baghdad to ‘step up’

  • UN has put forward a phased roadmap calling for an immediate end to violence and electoral reform within 2 weeks
  • Protesters have escalated their demands to deep-rooted regime change

BAGHDAD: Iraqi officials must “step up” to respond to mass demonstrations, the UN representative in Baghdad told AFP on Wednesday as anti-government rallies swelled in Iraq’s capital and the country’s south.
Protests demanding an overhaul of the political system have rocked Baghdad and the Shiite-majority south for weeks — the crowds unmoved by government pledges of reform and undeterred by the deaths of more than 300 demonstrators.
Washington and the United Nations have called on the government to respond seriously to the protests, with the world body’s representative Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert saying the country’s authorities must “step up to the plate and make things happen.”
“They are elected by the people, they are accountable to them,” the head of the UN’s Iraq mission (UNAMI) told AFP in an exclusive interview.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for his part, has said he told Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi that he “deplored the death toll” and to address the popular movement’s “legitimate grievances.”
The protests had slowed for a few days following a deadly crackdown by security forces in Baghdad and major southern cities but flared again Wednesday with demonstrations by striking students and teachers.
“We’re here to back the protesters and their legitimate demands, which include teachers’ rights,” said Aqeel Atshan, a professor on strike, in Baghdad’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square, the epicenter of the protest movement.
In the southern port city of Basra, around 800 students returned to camp outside the provincial government headquarters, days after they had been pushed out by riot police.
Schools were also shut in the protest hotspots of Diwaniyah and Nasiriyah.
Protesters have felt emboldened since the country’s top Shiite religious authority Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani said they “cannot go home without sufficient reforms.”
“Students, boys and girls alike, are all here for a sit-in,” another demonstrator in Tahrir told AFP.
“If Sistani gave the orders for mass civil disobedience, everything would close — the government, the oil companies, everything. That’s how we’ll have a solution.”
The UN has put forward a phased roadmap, backed by Sistani, calling for an immediate end to violence, electoral reform and anti-graft measures within two weeks.
Hennis-Plasschaert, the UN envoy, discussed the plan with lawmakers during a parliamentary session on Wednesday afternoon.
“Now is the time to act, otherwise any momentum will be lost — lost at a time when many, many Iraqis demand concrete results,” she told them on the sidelines of the parliamentary meeting.
At the session’s opening, speaker of parliament Mohammed Al-Halbussi pledged to work on laws to respond to protesters’ demands including electoral reform.
Parliament has received a draft law for electoral reform but has yet to discuss it.
Lawmakers also set dates to interrogate two ministers, which could indicate the first steps of a cabinet reshuffle announced by Abdel Mahdi.
Oil-rich Iraq is ranked the 12th most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International, and youth unemployment stands at 25 percent.
Demonstrations erupted on October 1 in fury over a lack of jobs and corruption, initially fracturing the ruling class.
Populist cleric Moqtada Sadr then called on the government to resign and President Barham Saleh suggested early elections, while other factions stood by Abdel Mahdi.
But after a series of meetings led by Iran’s influential Major General Qassem Soleimani, a consensus emerged at the weekend over the government remaining intact and both Saleh and Sadr appear to have changed their tunes.
Sadr, who is reported to be in Iran, took to Twitter on Wednesday to call on parliament to enact reforms and for “a general strike, even for one day,” but did not demand the premier step down.
Saleh, too, appears to have dropped the idea of early elections.
The agreement brokered by Soleimani appeared to have paved the way for a crackdown on demonstrations last weekend that sent the death toll amid the unrest to well over 300.
Iraq has faced growing criticism over its response to rallies, with rights defenders accusing authorities of shooting live rounds at protesters and curtailing freedom of expression with an Internet blackout and mass arrests.
Also on Wednesday, the president of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, Nechirvan Barzani, was in Baghdad to meet with the premier, president and speaker of parliament.
Barzani and Abdel Mahdi are believed to have good personal ties, and the Iraqi Kurdish authorities have backed the current government.
But they have worried that any amendments to Iraq’s 2005 constitution as part of a reform process could infringe on Kurdish rights.