The death toll from a catastrophic blaze at a hospital in southern Iraq has risen to 92, the Iraqi state news agency has reported.
The announcement came as anguished family members buried their loved ones and lashed out at the government over the tragedy.
Two health officials said more than 100 other people were injured in the fire, which swept through the coronavirus ward of the Al-Hussein Teaching Hospital in the city of Nasiriyah on Monday.
It was the second catastrophic fire in fewer than three months to kill Covid-19 hospital patients in Iraq, where the health care system has been crippled by decades of war and sanctions.
Many bereaved relatives cried openly, their tears tinged with anger, blaming both the provincial government of Dhi Qar, where Nasiriyah is located, and the federal government in Baghdad for years of mismanagement and neglect.
“The whole state system has collapsed, and who paid the price? The people inside here. These people have paid the price,” said Haidar al-Askari, who was at the scene of the blaze.
Overnight, firefighters and rescuers — many with just flashlights and using blankets to extinguish small fires still smouldering in places — had frantically worked searching through the ward in the darkness.
As dawn broke, bodies covered with sheets were laid on the ground outside the hospital.
Earlier, officials had said the fire was caused by an electrical short circuit, but have not provided more details.
Another official said the blaze erupted when an oxygen cylinder exploded.
The new ward, opened just three months ago, contained 70 beds.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi chaired an emergency meeting in the wake of the fire and ordered the suspension and arrest of the health director in Dhi Qar province, where Nasiriyah is located, as well as the director of the hospital and the city’s director of civil defence.
A government investigation was also launched.
It is the second time a large fire has killed coronavirus patients in an Iraqi hospital this year.
At least 82 people died at the Ibn al-Khateeb Hospital in Baghdad in April, when an oxygen tank exploded, sparking the blaze.
That incident brought to light widespread negligence and systemic mismanagement in Iraq’s hospitals. Doctors have decried lax safety rules, especially around the oxygen cylinders.
On Monday, Ammar al-Zamili, spokesman for the Dhi Qar health department, told local media that there were at least 63 patients inside the ward when the fire began.
Major General Khalid Bohan, head of Iraq’s civil defence, said in comments to the press that the building was constructed from flammable materials and prone to fire.
Iraq is in the midst of another severe Covid-19 surge. Daily coronavirus rates peaked last week at 9,000 new cases.
After decades of war and sanctions, Iraq’s health sector has struggled to contain the virus. More than 17,000 people have died of the virus among 1.4 million confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic.