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Baghdad Hospital Fire Kills at Least 82, Many of Them Coronavirus Patients

BAGHDAD — A fire sparked by an exploding oxygen cylinder killed at least 82 people, most of them Covid-19 patients and their relatives, at a Baghdad hospital late Saturday, a devastating example of the pandemic’s impact on a country riddled with corruption and a legacy of decrepit infrastructure.

The hospital, a facility dedicated to Covid-19 patients in one of Baghdad’s poorer neighborhoods, had no smoke detectors, sprinkler system or fire hoses, said Maj. Gen. Khadhim Bohan, the head of Iraq’s civil defense forces. The fire spread quickly because of flammable material used in false ceilings in the intensive care ward, he added.

“If there had been smoke detectors, the situation would have been totally different,” General Bohan told the state-run Iraqiya TV.

Doctors and rescuers described a chaotic scene at the hospital, crowded with relatives of patients despite what was supposed to be a ban on most visitors to avoid the spread of infection. Because of a lack of nursing staff, Iraqi hospitals, even in Covid wards, require a relative to help look after a patient.

report early this year warned of the dangers of hospital fires because of increased oxygen use. It reported almost 70 people were killed in hospital fires around the world related to supplemental oxygen last year, including 10 in Romania. A more recent fire in April in Romania, where intensive care units have also been overwhelmed, killed three patients.

An Iraqi health ministry spokesman said the Ibn al-Khatib hospital, where the fire broke out, was originally built in the 1950s and had been renovated last year to refit it for treating Covid patients. He declined to comment on why the renovation did not include smoke detectors or a sprinkler system, saying that was now under investigation.

Among the dead were some older patients on ventilators who could not move from their beds when the fire started, officials said.

One Facebook notice listed five members of one family who died in the fire: a tribal sheikh being treated for Covid, his wife and their three sons.

“It was a horrible scene,” said Dr. Waad Adnan, a hospital resident who was in the physicians’ quarters next to the hospital when the fire started. “There was the sound of explosions and then huge balls of fire,” he added.

Dr. Adnan, who spoke outside the hospital, said he saw patients and their relatives breaking windows and throwing themselves from the second floor to escape the blaze.

He said the fire was believed to have started when an oxygen cylinder caught fire and then exploded.

“The hospital staff did their best to turn off the central oxygen, but the cylinders began exploding,” he said.

A neighborhood tuk-tuk driver, Ahmed Hassan, said he and other drivers rushed to the hospital to try to help a friend’s aunt who was being treated for Covid, but when they arrived, they found she had already died.

“I couldn’t see anything but heavy smoke and people running and shouting and charred bodies,” said Mr. Hassan, 19. “I heard screaming and saw smoke and people cursing the hospital staff for not helping the patients.”

He said he and other young men spent an hour running in and out of the hospital trying to rescue patients while the fire burned. Some were able to walk, while others, he said, he pulled from their beds.

“I found one of the people who was not able to move and I yelled, ‘This man is still alive, we can save him!’” he said. The older man clung to him and asked him not to leave him. He said, “‘Please, this is my phone. If I die tell my family I forgive them for everything.’”

The man died on Sunday.

Mr. Hassan said he helped rescue a nurse as well as other patients and their relatives. Iraq’s pharmaceutical association said at least one pharmacist died in the blaze.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadimi called the fire a crime and ordered an investigation within 24 hours into possible negligence at the hospital.

He ordered the detention for questioning of the health director for the Rasfah area of Baghdad, where the hospital is. The hospital’s director and its head of engineering and maintenance were also ordered detained.

President Barham Salih said the tragedy was a “result of the accumulated destruction of state institutions due to corruption and mismanagement,” in a post on Twitter.

“Showing pain and sympathy with our martyrs and injured sons is not enough without strenuous accountability for the negligent.”

Nermeen al-Mufti and Awadh al-Taiee contributed reporting.

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The U.S. War in Afghanistan: How It Started and How It Is Ending

President Biden, declaring that the United States had long ago accomplished its mission of denying terrorists a safe haven in Afghanistan, announced April 14 that all American troops would leave the country by Sept. 11.

A combat mission that has dogged four presidents — who reckoned with American casualties, a ruthless enemy and an often corrupt and confounding Afghan government partner — will at last come to an end.

Mr. Biden conceded that after nearly 20 years of war, America’s longest on foreign soil, it was clear that the U.S. military could not transform Afghanistan into a modern, stable democracy.

President George W. Bush announced that American forces had launched attacks against the terrorist group and Taliban targets in Afghanistan.

an end to major combat operations in the country.

stolen or misappropriated. The government proved unable to meet the most basic needs of its citizens. Often, its writ barely extended beyond the capital, Kabul, and other major cities.

In 2003, with 8,000 American troops in Afghanistan, the United States began shifting combat resources to the war in Iraq, launched in March of that year.

deployed thousands more troops to Afghanistan as part of a “surge,” reaching nearly 100,000 by mid-2010. But the Taliban only grew stronger, inflicting heavy casualties on Afghan security forces despite American combat power and airstrikes.

killed Osama bin Laden in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he had been living for years near a Pakistan military training academy. In June, Mr. Obama announced that he would start bringing American forces home and hand over responsibility for security to the Afghans by 2014.

By then, the Pentagon had concluded that the war could not be won militarily and that only a negotiated settlement could end the conflict — the third in three centuries involving a world power. Afghan fighters defeated the British army in the 19th century and the Russian military in the 20th century.

With the war at a stalemate, Mr. Obama ended major combat operations on Dec. 31, 2014, and transitioned to training and assisting Afghan security forces.

Nearly three years later, President Donald J. Trump said that although his first instinct had been to withdraw all troops, he would nonetheless continue to prosecute the war. He stressed that any troop withdrawal would be based on combat conditions, not predetermined timelines.

But the Trump administration also had been talking to the Taliban since 2018, leading to formal negotiations that excluded the Afghan government, led by President Ashraf Ghani.

an agreement with the Taliban that called for all American forces to leave Afghanistan by May 1, 2021. In return, the Taliban pledged to cut ties with terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, reduce violence and negotiate with the American-backed Afghan government.

release 5,500 Taliban prisoners while receiving little in return, further alienating the Afghan government.

After the deal was signed, the Taliban stopped attacking American troops and refrained from major terrorist bombings in Afghan cities. The United States reduced air support for government forces, generally restricting them to instances in which Afghan troops were in danger of being overrun.

The primary objectives of the 2020 deal were for Afghan leaders and the Taliban to negotiate a political road map for a new government and constitution, reduce violence and ultimately forge a lasting cease-fire.

But the government accused the Taliban of assassinating Afghan government officials and security force members, civil society advocates, journalists and human rights workers — including several women shot in broad daylight.

Because of their strong battlefield position and the imminent U.S. troop withdrawal, the Taliban have maintained the upper hand in talks with the Afghan government, which began in September in Doha, Qatar, but have since stalled. The Pentagon has said the militants have not honored pledges to reduce violence or cut ties with terrorist groups.

After Mr. Biden announced in April the U.S. withdrawal of American forces, NATO said its 7,000 troops in Afghanistan would coordinate their withdrawal with the United States.

The Biden administration says it continues to support peace talks, but the Taliban appear in no hurry to negotiate. Nor have they explicitly said they would agree to a power-sharing government, implying instead that they intend to seek a monopoly on power.

impose tolls and taxes on truckers and motorists, providing official receipts valid anywhere in the country. The militants also have set up checkpoints on the outskirts of major cities, raising fears that they will attempt to wrest control of cities from the government after international forces depart.

The United States has spent at least $4 billion a year on the Afghan military — $74 billion since the start of the war. The Biden administration has pledged to continue supporting Afghan forces after American troops depart.

A classified intelligence assessment presented to the Biden administration this spring said Afghanistan could fall largely under Taliban control within two to three years after the departure of international forces.

And the Taliban have given no indication they will abandon their annual spring offensive, when they typically ratchet up combat operations with the arrival of warmer weather.

“The Taliban is confident it can achieve military victory,” the threat assessment concluded.

The report added: “The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.”

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The Contradiction That Doomed America’s Mission in Afghanistan

It took barely two months after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 for the United States mission to point itself toward defeat.

“Tomorrow the Taliban will start surrendering their weapons,” the Taliban’s spokesman, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, announced on Dec. 7, 2001. “I think we should go home.”

But the United States refused the group’s surrender, vowing to fight on to shatter the Taliban’s influence in every corner of the country.

That same week, Washington oversaw an international agreement to establish a new government in Afghanistan that would be “by some accounts the most centralized in the world,” said Frances Z. Brown, an Afghanistan expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

announced he is ending after 20 years of war.

wrote in 2019.

And it meant that when the Americans did leave, Ms. Mukhopadhyay warned, “the incentives for Afghan power brokers to go it alone and engage in predatory, even cannibalistic behavior, may prove irresistible.”

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With Afghan Decision, Biden Seeks to Focus U.S. on New Challenges

WASHINGTON — President Biden’s decision to pull all American troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 was rooted in his belief that there is no room for continuing 20 years of failed efforts to remake that country, especially at a moment when he wants the United States focused on a transformational economic and social agenda at home and other fast-evolving threats from abroad.

Though Mr. Biden would never use the term, getting out of Afghanistan is part of his own version of “America First,” one that differs drastically from how his predecessor, Donald J. Trump, used the phrase. His years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as vice president convinced him that the United States-led effort in Afghanistan was destined to collapse of its own weight.

Time and again during the Obama administration, Mr. Biden lost arguments to reduce the American presence to a minimal counterterrorism force. But after less than three months as president, Mr. Biden came to the determination that only a full withdrawal — with no link to political conditions on the ground — would wrench America’s attention away from the conflict of the past two decades in favor of the very different kinds he expects in the next two.

He has defined his presidency’s goals as releasing the country from the grip of a virus that is morphing into new variants, seizing an opportunity to bolster economic competitiveness against China and proving to the world that American democracy can still rise to great challenges.

annual worldwide threat assessment published by his intelligence chiefs on Tuesday morning, as word of his decision leaked, explicitly warned that “the Afghan government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay” if the American-led coalition withdraws. Administration officials said that raised the specter of something akin to the 1975 fall of Saigon, after the United States gave up on another ill-considered war.

But Mr. Biden’s decision makes clear his belief that contending with a rising China takes precedence over the idea that with just a few more years in Afghanistan, and a few more billions of dollars, the United States could achieve with a few thousand troops what it could not achieve with hundreds of thousands and the more than $2 trillion already poured into two decades of warfighting and nation building.

After Mr. Biden declared at a news conference last month that “We’ve got to prove democracy works,” he went on to describe a foreign policy that was focused on restoring America’s reputation for getting big things done. “China is outinvesting us by a long shot,” the president noted, “because their plan is to own that future.”

Indeed, no one celebrated the American involvement in Afghanistan, or Iraq, more than the Chinese — conflicts that kept Americans up at night worrying about casualties and taking control of distant provinces, while Beijing focused on spreading its influence in regions of the world where America was once the unquestioned dominant power.

Afghanistan’s stability deeply in jeopardy. If there is no terrorist attack launched from Afghan territory again, no echo of Sep. 11, 2001, Mr. Biden may well have been judged to have made the right bet.

In the end, the argument that won the day is that the future of Kenosha is more important than defending Kabul. And if Mr. Biden can truly focus the country on far bigger strategic challenges — in space and cyberspace, against declining powers like Russia and rising ones like China — he will have finally moved the country out of its post-9/11 fixation, where counterterrorism overrode every other foreign policy and domestic imperative.

That would be a real change in the way Americans think about the purpose of the country’s influence and power, and the nature of national security.

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Drought and Abundance in the Mesopotamian Marshes

On my most recent visit to the Mesopotamian marshes, in March, I arrived at Sayeed Hitham’s for breakfast. The pandemic had kept me away for more than a year.

The sun was just rising, the sky pink and golden. Hana, Hitham’s wife, stood smiling near the door to their reed house. “Tea is ready, bread is ready,” she said. “Come on in.”

We sat on the worn-out carpet around a glowing kerosene heater, sipping tea and dipping the flat naan Hana had just baked into hot buffalo milk. “What took you so long, Emi?” Sayeed asked with a tone of reproach. “We haven’t seen you in forever.”

battle for Mosul was raging, I took the opposite path and headed south. I was in search of another view of the country, something different from the war I’d been covering for the previous year and a half.

It was a moment of real discovery for me — one of those few times when you connect with a place, with a people.

The Mesopotamian marshes, a series of wetlands that sit near Iraq’s southeast border, feel like an oasis in the middle of the desert — which they are. The ruins of the ancient Sumerian cities of Ur, Uruk and Eridu are close at hand. The broader region, known as the cradle of civilization, saw early developments in writing, architecture and complex society.

The marshes are home to a people called the Ma’dan, also known as the Marsh Arabs, who live deep in the wetlands, mostly as buffalo breeders in isolated settlements, a majority of which are reachable only by boat. Others live in small cities on the banks of the Tigris or Euphrates rivers, which feed the marshes.

Many of the Ma’dan left decades ago, when the marshes were ravaged by war, famine and repression.

During the Iran-Iraq war, waged between 1980 and 1988, the wetland’s proximity to the Iranian border turned the area into a conflict zone, a theater for bloody battles. Later, in the early 1990s, in the aftermath of a Shiite uprising against his Baath Party, Saddam Hussein intentionally drained the region — where many of the Shiite rebels had fled — as a punishment and a way to stifle the insurrection.

The marshes turned into a desert for more than a decade, until the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

By then, damage had already been done. By the early 2000s, less than 10 percent of the area’s original wetland existed as a functioning marshland.

Today, after being re-flooded and partially restored, the marshes are once again endangered — by climate change, lack of ecological awareness on a local level and, perhaps most dramatically, by the construction of dams in Turkey and Syria and upriver in Iraq.

In 2018, an extremely hot summer followed by a lack of rain caused a serious drought. In some areas, the water level fell by more than three feet.

“That’s it,” I remember thinking, as the small boat crossed the marsh where corpses of young buffaloes floated in the water. Buffalo breeders like Sayeed Hitham lost about a third of their livestock, and many had to leave when areas turned into a desert. They migrated to neighboring cities — or farther still, to the poor suburbs of Karbala, Basra or Baghdad.

But then, a few months later, the water began to rise. People returned. I photographed the renewal, just as I’d photographed drought the year before. But it felt then — it still feels now — like a sword of Damocles hung over the region.

The stakes are high, both ecologically and for the people who live here. If the already-depleted marshes dry up again, the Ma’dan may have no choice but to leave, to cast away from a peaceful enclave into a troubled land.

Still, I’ve kept coming back. Over the years, I’ve seen drought and abundance, freezing winters and burning summers. I’ve seen children born, and watched them grow up. I’ve followed Sayeed Hitham and his family as they moved around the marsh, the location of their new home dependent on the water level — and each time built out of reeds.

I’ve even gotten used to the huge water buffaloes, known locally as jamous, which represent the main source of income for most of the Ma’dan.

The buffaloes scared me at the beginning. But I’ve learned to walk through a herd of horns, to let them smell me, to pet the fluffy, friendly calves — the ones that try to lick my hand like oversized dogs.

When I outlined my progress to Sayeed, as we wrapped up breakfast, he burst into his wonderful, exuberant laughter. “You still know nothing, Emi,” he said. “You can’t even tell the mean jamous in the herd.”

Then, serious, and still smiling, he said: “It’s OK. You have time to learn.”

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Jordan’s King Breaks Silence on Feud, Saying It Has ‘Ceased’

AMMAN, Jordan — King Abdullah II of Jordan broke his silence Wednesday night over the unusually public rift with his half brother, Prince Hamzah, justifying the steps he had taken to curb his brother’s movements, while asserting that their “strife had ceased.”

In an open letter addressed to the Jordanian people that was read on television, King Abdullah wrote that Prince Hamzah had committed “to place the interest of Jordan, its constitution and its laws above any other considerations.”

The king added: “Hamzah today is with his family, in his palace, under my care.” The prince has claimed that he was under house arrest.

This past weekend, the Jordanian government accused Prince Hamzah, a former crown prince, of having plotted to undermine the security of the country. Several aides and associates of the prince were arrested and the prince himself was ordered to refrain from making public comments or communicating with people outside the royal family.

The news shocked Jordanians and foreign allies alike. Jordan has historically been a pillar of stability in the turbulent Middle East, and the ruling family has rarely aired its disputes in public.

King Abdullah’s letter constitutes the first time that the monarch himself has commented on the rift.

Prince Hamzah had previously distributed two videos about the situation, denying any involvement in a conspiracy, but excoriating the Jordanian government and saying he had been put under house arrest.

Squeezed between Syria, Iraq, Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Jordan is viewed by western powers like the United States as a key ally in international military efforts to rein in extremist groups like the Islamic State. And with a sizable population of Palestinian origin, Jordan is considered a key player in any future Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

In his statement on Wednesday the king spoke of his personal discomfort at his disagreement with Prince Hamzah.

“The challenges during the past few days were not the most challenging nor the most dangerous that the country has faced in terms of stability,” King Abdullah wrote.

“But it was the most painful to me,” he added, “because the cause of the division was someone from inside our home.”

He added: “Nothing comes close to the pain, shock and anger I felt, as a brother and guardian of the Hashemite family.”

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Nemam Ghafouri, Doctor Who Aided Yazidis in Iraq, Dies at 52

Nemam Ghafouri was born on Dec. 25, 1968, in the Chnarok region of Iraq (now the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region), one of 11 children of Mahmoud Agha Kaka Ziad Ghafouri, a Kurdish resistance commander, and Gulzar Hassan Jalal, who relayed food and ammunition to the fighters while raising her children.

Dr. Ghafouri grew up near Tehran and in Naghadeh, in the West Azerbaijan province in Iran. Her family moved to Stockholm as refugees in the 1980s. She studied medicine at the University of Pecs in Hungary and at Umea University in northern Sweden.

In the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, she designed and conducted one of the first epidemiological surveys on risk factors faced by conflict-zone survivors.

Dr. Ghafouri engaged in wide-ranging relief efforts in recent years, including missions to Iran to help earthquake survivors. But her primary focus since 2014 had been dealing with the humanitarian crisis created by the ISIS takeover. Even after escaping ISIS, Yazidis were left for months with no shelter and no coordinated relief operations. Seven years later, more than 150,000 remain in displacement camps.

“She didn’t think it would last for so many years, but the more involved she got, she couldn’t leave them alone without any help,” Nazdar Ghafouri said of her sister. “She saw the disaster beyond the first emergency — food, water, medicine. Then she saw the catastrophe — all the life stories behind every tragedy.”

In addition to her sister, Dr. Ghafouri is survived by her mother; five more sisters, Nergiz, Neshmil, Shilan, Chinar and Bijar Ghafouri; and three brothers, Diari, Ari and Karwan.

Dr. Ghafouri was evacuated to Sweden after contracting Covid-19 during the mission to reunite the mothers and children. On a ventilator, as her oxygen dropped to dangerously low levels, she continued to post political messages on Twitter before she was transported.

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Iran and U.S. Agree on Path Back to Nuclear Deal

The new working groups are intended to create a road map for a synchronized return of both countries to compliance. But even if there is agreement, verification will take some time given the technical complications and the absence of trust on both sides.

For instance, companies that want to do business with Iran, and that were burned badly when Mr. Trump reimposed powerful American sanctions, will want to be sure that a new administration won’t reimpose sanctions. Iran will want to see economic benefits, not just the promise of them, and the United States will want the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure that Iran has returned to compliance and is not cheating, as it has done in the past.

In Vienna, Iran met with the other current members of the deal — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia, under the chairmanship of the European Union — in a grand hotel ballroom, while the American team, led by special envoy Robert Malley, worked separately in a nearby hotel. Iran has refused to meet directly with the United States, so the Europeans have been undertaking a kind of shuttle diplomacy.

The United States also wants to convince Iran to negotiate longer time limits for the accord and to begin further talks on limiting Iran’s missiles and support for allies and Shia militias through the region, including in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Iran has said that it has no interest in considering further negotiations until the United States restores the status quo ante and rejoins the deal.

More broadly, American officials are trying to gauge whether the United States and Iran can agree on how each can come back into compliance with the nuclear deal — or, at least, work toward bridging any gaps in a mutual understanding.

Iran was represented by Abbas Araghchi, the deputy foreign minister, who was crucial to negotiating the 2015 deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or J.C.P.O.A., with the administration of President Barack Obama and Mr. Biden, then vice president.

Mr. Araghchi said in a statement after the talks that lifting U.S. sanctions would be “the first and most necessary step in reviving the J.C.P.O.A. The Islamic Republic of Iran is fully ready to stop its retaliation nuclear activity and return to its full commitments as soon as U.S. sanctions are lifted and verified.”

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