The health ministry has struggled to get its message across.

“Some people still do not believe in the existence of the virus and they do not believe in the effectiveness of the vaccine,” said Dr. Ruba Falah Hassan, in the ministry’s media office.

At many vaccination clinics outside the Sadr strongholds, there has been so little demand that any Iraqi with ID or foreigner with a passport can be vaccinated after a few minutes wait.

Near central Baghdad’s Palestine Street, about 30 people waited for a Sinopharm vaccine on plastic chairs in the Al Edreesi health care center on Thursday. In this middle-class neighborhood most of those waiting appeared to be professionals or university students.

“We ask anyone who took the vaccine to send a message of reassurance in their groups. ” said Afraa al-Mullah, from the health center’s media department. “Anyone who took the vaccine must speak and say, ‘Here I am. I’m fine, get vaccinated.’”

The more that word spreads that vaccines are not harmful, she hopes, the more Iraqis would agree to be vaccinated.

“Iraq’s population is 40 million, 20 million must get vaccinated,” she said, calling the 400,000 who have been inoculated “a drop in the ocean.” She added: “We have people that do not believe in coronavirus. How can we convince them to vaccinate?”

Falih Hassan and Nermeen al-Mufti contributed reporting.

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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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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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