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Sunni Patients Fear Baghdad Wards

Sunnis stay clear of hospitals for fear of being targeted by Shia death squads.
By IWPR Reporters
For Sunni Arabs in the capital, getting medical treatment can be a death sentence.



Public hospitals here are operated by Iraq's Shia-run health ministry and allegations are common that hospital staff have helped militia members abduct and kill Sunni patients.



Omar Othman, 24, a Sunni who works in a car parts shop, was hit by a bus on his way home from work in December 2006, badly injuring his leg. His father believes he only narrowly escaped a worse fate.



On admittance to the al-Kindi hospital in a Shia region of the capital, Omar’s surname - typically Sunni - marked him as a target.



“The staff started looking at me suspiciously. I felt I was threatened. No one approached me or treated me," said Omar, who called his father to say where he was.



"I went into the hospital like a madman,” his father, Abdullah, a retired police officer, recalled, describing how he rushed from one ward to another before a security guard called him by name.



"Aren’t you Abu Othman?" the security guard asked.



"Yes, I am," he replied. "Who are you, and how do you know me?"



"You were my boss when I was a police officer before you retired," said the security guard.



The father told the guard he was looking for his son. The guard said one of the doctors had written on a small piece of paper "a virus is here", and believed it was in reference to Omar.



"These sons of bitches will kill him," the guard told Omar’s father.



The security guard asked Abdullah not to move or speak to anyone until his son was moved out of the emergency ward and into an isolated room. From there, Omar's father transferred his son to a hospital in a part of the city with a strong Sunni majority.



"He had surgery there and survived," said Abdullah. "If I had been late, my son would have definitely died."



The ministry of health refused to answer questions about the alleged incident.



But other media have described similar cases. In November last year, Britain’s Channel 4 television broadcast a documentary about the death squads. The programme showed photos of 14 Sunnis abducted from a hospital in Baghdad, then forced into a rubbish container and shot dead.



Last December, a Sunni surgeon was quoted in The Sunday Times as saying that in some hospitals porters and cleaners who support the Mahdi army, a militia loyal to the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, offered doctors 300 US dollars to identify Sunni patients.



"I found that many patients were dying. Most were well and ready to walk out of the hospital. Instead, they left in wooden boxes,” the surgeon told the newspaper.



According to him, most of the support staff in the hospitals comes from the Shia slums of Sadr City, a stronghold of the Mahdi army, a group which has been accused of leading Shia death squads. In one case, he said, two patients from the mainly Sunni Diyala province were placed on trolleys to be taken to the x-ray department. The patients were never seen again.



Such stories are common, and several Sunni officials accuse Iraq's health system of having links to Shia militias or death squads.



Shatha al-Abbusi, a member of parliament from the Sunni Iraqi Accord Front, said, "There is organised terror by militias [who are] assassinating Sunni Arabs in hospitals."



Health personnel from other hospitals in Baghdad confirm such incidents. A number of doctors in al-Yarmuk hospital, who requested anonymity for security reasons, confirmed that their hospital witnessed several killings of Sunnis in November and December of 2006. One doctor said two died as a result of insulin overdoses.



"When I checked the treatment papers, this injection was missing," said the doctor.



A female doctor working in a health centre in the al-Dakhiliyyah neighbourhood of Baghdad said that armed militias stormed the facility in civilian clothes and took a Sunni patient and a medical assistant.



The numerous and detailed accounts of relatives, doctors and nurses appear to corroborate a US intelligence report from December 2006, which said hospitals had become command centres for the Mahdi army, and Sunni patients were being dragged from their beds. The report was denied by Iraq’s health minister, Ali al-Shamari, who is a Sadr loyalist.



In February 2007, US and Iraqi forces raided the health ministry in Baghdad's al-Rasafa district and arrested Hakim al-Zamili, the deputy health minister from the Sadr movement. He was charged with funneling money to Mahdi fighters who allegedly used the ministry's cars and ambulances to kidnap and kill Sunnis.



A statement issued by the US army maintained that health ministry officials were involved in the killing of Sunnis with the help of a Shia militia.



Since then and thanks to a crackdown on militias in Baghdad, the activities of death squads have been restricted. Several leaders of the Mahdi army are believed to have fled to Iran. And those who stayed behind went into hiding, avoiding any media contact out of fear that they would be arrested or targeted by American forces.