‘I numb myself’: Hospital fire deepens Iraq’s COVID crisis

‘I numb myself’: Hospital fire deepens Iraq’s COVID crisis
Rescue workers and civilians clean up the fire site at a coronavirus hospital ward in the al-Hussein Teaching Hospital, in Nasiriyah, Iraq, Tuesday, July 13, 2021. (AP)
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Updated 16 July 2021

‘I numb myself’: Hospital fire deepens Iraq’s COVID crisis

‘I numb myself’: Hospital fire deepens Iraq’s COVID crisis
  • Many blame corruption and mismanagement in the medical system for the disaster

BAGHDAD: No beds, medicines running low and hospital wards prone to fire — Iraq’s doctors say they are losing the battle against the coronavirus. And they say that was true even before a devastating blaze killed scores of people in a COVID-19 isolation unit this week.
Infections in Iraq have surged to record highs in a third wave spurred by the more aggressive delta variant, and long-neglected hospitals suffering the effects of decades of war are overwhelmed with severely ill patients, many of them this time young people.
Doctors are going online to plea for donations of medicine and bottled oxygen, and relatives are taking to social media to find hospital beds for their stricken loved ones.
“Every morning, it’s the same chaos repeated, wards overwhelmed with patients,” said Sarmed Ahmed, a doctor at Baghdad’s Al-Kindi Hospital.
Widespread distrust of Iraq’s crumbling health care system only intensified after Monday’s blaze at the Al-Hussein Teaching Hospital in the southern city of Nasiriyah, the country’s second catastrophic fire at a coronavirus ward in less than three months.
Days after the latest fire, the death toll was in dispute, with the Health Ministry putting it at 60, local health officials saying 88, and Iraq’s state news agency reporting 92 dead.
Many blame corruption and mismanagement in the medical system for the disaster, and Iraq’s premier ordered the arrest of key health officials.
Doctors said they fear working in the country’s poorly constructed isolation wards and decried what they called lax safety measures.
“After both infernos, when I’m on call I numb myself because every hospital in Iraq is at high risk of burning down every single moment. So what can I do? I can’t quit my job. I can’t avoid the call,” said Hadeel Al-Ashabl, a doctor in Baghdad who works in a new isolation ward similar to the one in Nasiriyah. “Patients are also not willing to be treated inside these hospitals, but it’s also out of their hands.”
Iraq recorded over 9,600 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday in the highest 24-hour total since the pandemic began. Daily case numbers have slowly been rising since May. More than 17,600 people have died of the virus, according to the Health Ministry.
In April, at least 82 people — most of them severely ill virus patients in need of ventilators to breathe — died in a fire at Baghdad’s Ibn Al-Khateeb Hospital that broke out when an oxygen tank exploded. Iraq’s health minister resigned over the disaster.
Faulty construction and inadequate safety practices, involving in particular the handling of oxygen cylinders, have been blamed for the two hospital fires. The 70-bed ward at Al-Hussein Hospital was built three months ago using highly flammable interior wall panels, according to hospital workers and civil defense officials.
Inside one major Baghdad emergency room this week, relatives of COVID-19 patients sat on the floor because there were no chairs available.
With hospital space limited, Ahmed calls on Baghdad’s health directorate to advise him where to send patients. “They say, ‘Send five patients to this hospital, another five to this other,’ and so on,” he said.
Hadeel Almainy, a dentist in Baghdad, resorted to Facebook to find a place for her COVID-19-stricken father, pleading: “He can’t breathe, his skin is turning blue. The hospital couldn’t take us.”
In the southern city of Karbala, doctors have begged on social media for donations of remdesivir, an antiviral medication used to treat coronavirus patients.
Al-Shabl said medications and ventilators are running low at her hospital, and 60 percent of the COVID-19 patients there need the breathing machines.
For the first time since the start of the pandemic, children have come to the hospital with severe virus symptoms, said Alya Yass, a pediatrician at Al-Numan Teaching Hospital in Baghdad.
Doctors blame widespread vaccine hesitancy for the current surge and fear the actual number of infections may be higher than ministry figures. Many Iraqis forgo testing because they don’t trust public hospitals.
Less than 3 percent of Iraq’s population has been vaccinated, according to a Health Ministry official who was not authorized to talk to the media and spoke on condition of anonymity. The ministry has openly blamed the public for flouting pandemic restrictions.
Health workers said they have expressed their concerns to superiors with little results.
Mohammed Jamal, a former doctor at Al-Sader Teaching Hospital in Basra, said he confronted a ministry inspection committee and asked: Why haven’t the medications been restocked or fire extinguishers replaced? Where is the fire system?
“They didn’t listen. They didn’t see,” he said.


Iranian pilot exiled in Turkey fears Tehran will assassinate him

Updated 7 sec ago

Iranian pilot exiled in Turkey fears Tehran will assassinate him

Iranian pilot exiled in Turkey fears Tehran will assassinate him
  • Mehrdad Abdarbashi defected when he was ordered to fight in Syria
  • He was recently targeted by 2 Iranian agents who tried to drug and kidnap him

LONDON: A former Iranian air force pilot exiled in Turkey has said he still feels unsafe after a failed kidnapping attempt last month.

Mehrdad Abdarbashi, a former helicopter pilot who defected from the military when he was ordered to fight in Syria, had previously tried to resign from the armed forces, but Tehran rejected his resignation and seized his passport.

In 2018, he said he received orders to be deployed to Syria on behalf of the Assad regime and decided it was time to flee Iran.

“It was the first time I was being deployed there, and I refused because I did not want to be involved in a proxy war going on there,” he told Al Jazeera.

He is now in hiding in eastern Turkey, and was recently targeted by two Iranian agents who tried to drug and kidnap him.

Turkish intelligence, which had been in contact with Abdarbashi, foiled the plot. The Iranian agents were charged with espionage and conspiracy to commit a crime in a Turkish court earlier this month.

But Abdarbashi said he still fears the Iranian regime will reach him despite Ankara’s protection.

“I don’t think I am safe in any city in Turkey right now. I think Iranian intelligence will come after me, and this time they won’t try to kidnap me, this time they will just kill me,” he said.

“Of course, Turkish police and intelligence are still looking after me. But I still think Iranian agents will somehow reach me.”

Iranian exiles in Turkey are often targeted by Tehran’s agents, who try to kidnap them to bring them back to the Islamic Republic.

In June 2020, Eisa Bazyar, a writer critical of the Iranian regime, was forced into a car in western Turkey and held for two days before he managed to escape.

The following November, Habib Chaab, an Iranian dissident with Swedish citizenship, was seized as he transited through an Istanbul airport.

For a period of time, it appeared that Ankara was complying with and even directly cooperating with Tehran’s attempts to kidnap foreign dissidents and bring them back to Iran.

In two cases, Ankara assisted with the capture and deportation of men sentenced to death for their role in anti-regime protests.

But last year’s war between Azerbaijan — perhaps the nation with the closest ties to Ankara — and Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh appears to have prompted a cooling in relations between Turkey and Iran. Their opposing sides in the Syrian conflict has also proved a more subtle bone of contention.

As relations between the two large Middle Eastern states — which share a long border and have a centuries-old history of Persian-Turkic competition — have declined, Ankara’s cooperation with Iranian intelligence operations on Turkish soil appears to have ceased.

In February this year, Turkish police arrested an Iranian diplomat at the Istanbul consulate in connection with the assassination of spy-turned-dissident Masoud Molavi Vardanjani in November 2019. 


Sudan military leader denies staging coup day after government deposed

Sudan military leader denies staging coup day after government deposed
Updated 26 October 2021

Sudan military leader denies staging coup day after government deposed

Sudan military leader denies staging coup day after government deposed
  • ‘Condemnations are expected as countries see our actions as a coup, it is not’

DUBAI: Sudan’s top military leader Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan denied that the country’s armed forces staged a coup, but instead said they were trying to rectify the path of the transition.
“Condemnations are expected as countries see our actions as a coup, it is not,” Burhan said Tuesday in his televised address.
Burhan, who headed the transitional government through the Sovereign Council, earlier declared a state of emergency and announced the dissolution of the Sovereign Council following the takeover, which deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.
“Hamdok is at my house carrying on a normal life,” Burhan said, but was being kept away for his own safety. The military leader later said Hamdok would be returned to his own home the same day.
“The state of emergency in Sudan will be scrapped as soon as institutions are formed,” Burhan said.
Burhan emphasized that the Constitutional Declaration 2019 had “not been scrapped, only the items pertaining to the civilian partners.”
He said the declaration outlined the transition to the civilian government.
“We are aiming to see through a transition to a civilian government,” he said.
“The mistrust between transitional parties occurred after the signing of the peace agreement in Juba,” Burhan said in his address.
Sudan’s interim government and the Al-Hilu movement, the main rebel group in the country, agreed in March to re-start peace talks in an agreement signed in Juba, the capital of South Sudan.
Burhan said there had been incitement and hostility towards the armed forces, and that danger would had led to a civil war in the country.
He added that he earlier discussed with US special envoy Jeffrey Feltman how to resolve the stalemate between political forces and the army.
Feltman met with Sudanese military and civilian leaders over the weekend in efforts to resolve a growing dispute.
He promised that judicial bodies would be formed in the coming days.
“The armed forces cannot continue the transitional period on its own, we need participation of Sudanese people,” Burhan said.
The military general also said that the legislature that will be formed will include young participants from the revolution.


Possible cyberattack hits Iranian gas stations across nation

Possible cyberattack hits Iranian gas stations across nation
Updated 26 October 2021

Possible cyberattack hits Iranian gas stations across nation

Possible cyberattack hits Iranian gas stations across nation
  • Lines of cars at a Tehran gas station, with the pumps off and the station closeda

DUBAI: Gas stations across Iran on Tuesday suffered through a widespread outage of a government system managing fuel subsidies, stopping sales in an incident that one semiofficial news agency briefly referred to as a cyberattack.
An Iranian state television account online shared images of long lines of cars waiting to fill up in Tehran. An Associated Press journalist also saw lines of cars at a Tehran gas station, with the pumps off and the station closed.
State TV did not explain what the issue was, but said Oil Ministry officials were holding an “emergency meeting” to solve the technical problem.
The semiofficial ISNA news agency, which called the incident a cyberattack, said it saw those trying to buy fuel with a government-issued card through the machines instead receive a message reading “cyberattack 64411.” Most Iranians rely on those subsidies to fuel their vehicles, particularly amid the country’s economic problems.
While ISNA didn’t acknowledge the number’s significance, that number is associated to a hotline run through the office of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that handles questions about Islamic law. ISNA later removed its reports.
Farsi-language satellite channels abroad published videos apparently shot by drivers in Isfahan, a major Iranian city, showing electronic billboards there reading: “Khamenei! Where is our gas?” Another said: “Free gas in Jamaran gas station,” a reference to the home of the late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the outage. However, the use of the number “64411” mirrored an attack in July targeting Iran’s railroad system that also saw the number displayed. Israeli cybersecurity firm Check Point later attributed the train attack to a group of hackers that called themselves Indra, after the Hindu god of war.
Indra previously targeted firms in Syria, where President Bashar Assad has held onto power through Iran’s intervention in his country’s grinding war.
Iran has faced a series of cyberattacks, including one that leaked video of abuses its notorious Evin prison in August.
The country disconnected much of its government infrastructure from the Internet after the Stuxnet computer virus — widely believed to be a joint US-Israeli creation — disrupted thousands of Iranian centrifuges in the country’s nuclear sites in the late 2000s.


Leaving British Daesh members in Syria camps ‘coward’s Guantanamo’

Leaving British Daesh members in Syria camps ‘coward’s Guantanamo’
Updated 26 October 2021

Leaving British Daesh members in Syria camps ‘coward’s Guantanamo’

Leaving British Daesh members in Syria camps ‘coward’s Guantanamo’
  • Ex-UK top prosecutor: ‘We’re just demonstrating an unwillingness to take responsibility. I think it’s an embarrassment’
  • Ex-US intelligence official: London stripping nationals of citizenship ‘is misguided and will make us all less safe’

LONDON: The British strategy of leaving Daesh members and their families in Kurdish-administered camps in Syria is a “coward’s Guantanamo,” Britain’s former top prosecutor has said.

Lord Macdonald, the UK’s former director of public prosecutions, compared the situation in camps in Syria to the US-run Guantanamo Bay prison, which has been used to hold hundreds of people suspected of terrorist crimes or affiliations indefinitely and without trial.

“I think we’re just demonstrating an unwillingness to take responsibility. I think it’s an embarrassment personally … a coward’s form of Guantanamo,” the House of Lords member said while giving evidence at a parliamentary committee on Britons trafficked to Syria.

Rather than repatriating Daesh recruits to face prosecution at home, the UK has chosen to strip them of their citizenship where possible, making it impossible for them to legally return to the country.

Dozens of women and children are among the British citizens currently living in dire conditions in camps run by the Syrian Democratic Forces.

The committee heard that this approach is increasingly at odds with other Western nations such as Denmark, Germany and the US, which are gradually bringing their people home and putting them before juries.

Ministers have considered running trials in Iraq and Syria as a compromise — an idea Macdonald branded “preposterous” on logistical and legal grounds.

Instead, he urged London to “set our justice system loose” and attempt to formally prosecute suspected Daesh members.

“I am confident that many of these individuals would face prosecution because we do know a lot, and many of them have spoken about themselves on social media,” he said. “There are other means by which we can place some restraints on people we have to release.”

Officials and observers have consistently warned that abandoning Britons and other foreign nationals in Syria presents a long-term security threat.

A former senior official in the US State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism told the committee that repatriating people from these camps is “the right thing do to from a security perspective.”

Chris Harnisch, deputy coordinator for the department from 2018 until earlier this year, said the Trump administration chose to take back “Americans of all ages.”

Other countries must do the same to “prevent the re-emergence of the caliphate,” and there is “no viable alternative,” he added.

Daesh’s leadership “has made clear that the men, women and children in prisons and camps are strategic assets,” Harnisch said, warning of repeated attempts at large-scale prison breaks.

“The US and UK and the whole world is at more risk,” he added. “Al-Hol is the capital of the caliphate at this point — you have more hardened adherents to ISIS (Daesh) ideology living in that camp than anywhere in the world.”

Escapees, Harnisch warned, could join Daesh campaigns in Syria and Iraq, or travel further afield and return home from there to plan attacks.

He pointed to previous prison breaks by the Taliban in Afghanistan as evidence of the grave threat that the status quo presents.

Harnisch urged the UK to “think twice before stripping nationals of citizenship,” adding: “Such an approach is misguided and will make us all less safe.”

John Godfrey, US special envoy for the global anti-Daesh coalition, said in March this year that there remained around 2,000 foreign fighters in Kurdish-run camps in Syria, with about 10,000 associated family members, the majority of them children.

The British government has previously said prosecuting returning Daesh members presents serious legal challenges as it is difficult to prove the actions they took while in Syria and fighting for the group.

On Monday, a German court sentenced a female Daesh recruit to 10 years behind bars for war crimes committed after joining the group, including the enslavement, horrific abuse and eventual murder of a Yazidi girl she purchased on the Daesh slave markets.


Sudan capital locked down after coup triggers deadly unrest

Sudan capital locked down after coup triggers deadly unrest
Updated 26 October 2021

Sudan capital locked down after coup triggers deadly unrest

Sudan capital locked down after coup triggers deadly unrest
  • Life comes to a halt in the capital Khartoum and its twin city Omdurman across the Nile, with roads blocked either by soldiers or by barricades erected by protesters
KHARTOUM: Roads were blocked, shops were shut, phones were down and mosque loudspeakers blared calls for a general strike in Sudan on Tuesday, a day after the army seized power in a coup that triggered unrest in which at least seven people were killed.
Life came to a halt in the capital Khartoum and its twin city Omdurman across the Nile, with roads blocked either by soldiers or by barricades erected by protesters.
The night appeared to have passed comparatively quietly after Monday’s unrest, when protesters took to the streets after soldiers arrested Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and other civilians in the cabinet. A health ministry official said seven people had been killed in clashes between protesters and the security forces.
The leader of the takeover, General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, dissolved the military-civilian Sovereign Council set up to guide Sudan to democracy following the overthrow of long-ruling autocrat Omar Al-Bashir in a popular uprising two years ago.
Burhan announced a state of emergency, saying the armed forces needed to protect safety and security. He promised to hold elections in July 2023 and hand over to an elected civilian government then. On Tuesday he dissolved committees that govern trade unions, Arabic news channels reported.
The Sudan information ministry, still loyal to Hamdok, said on its Facebook page the transitional constitution gave only the prime minister the right to declare an emergency and the military’s actions were a crime. Hamdok was still the legitimate transitional authority, it said.
The main roads and bridge between Khartoum and Omdurman were closed to vehicles by the military. Banks and cash machines were shut, and mobile phone apps widely used for money transfers could not be accessed.
Some bakeries were open in Omdurman but people were queuing for several hours, longer than usual.
“We are paying the price for this crisis,” a man in his 50s looking for medicine at one of the pharmacies where stocks have been running low said angrily. “We can’t work, we can’t find bread, there are no services, no money.”
In the western city of El Geneina, resident Adam Haroun said there was complete civil disobedience, with schools, stores and gas stations closed.
The Sudanese Professionals Association, an activist coalition that played a major role in the uprising that toppled Bashir, has called for a strike.
Hamdok, an economist and former senior UN official, was detained and taken to an undisclosed location on Monday after refusing to issue a statement in support of the takeover, the information ministry said. Troops also arrested other civilian government figures and members of the Sovereign Council.
Western governments have condemned the coup, called for the release of the detained civilian leaders and threatened to cut off aid, which Sudan needs to recover from an economic crisis.
The United States has said it was immediately pausing delivery of $700 million in emergency support.
Sudan has been ruled for most of its post-colonial history by military leaders who seized power in coups. It had become a pariah to the West and was on a US terrorism blacklist under Bashir, who hosted Osama bin Laden in the 1990s and is wanted by the International Criminal Court in the Hague for war crimes.
Since Bashir was toppled, the military shared power uneasily with civilians under a transition meant to lead to elections in 2023. The country had been on edge since last month when a failed coup plot, blamed on Bashir supporters, unleashed recriminations between the military and civilians.