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Iraq's health minister resigns in wake of devastating hospital fire

Hassan al-Tamimi accepts responsibility for the 130 deaths in a blaze at a Baghdad hospital
Iraqi Health Minister Hassan al-Tamimi speaks to journalists as he tours Baghdad's suburb of Sadr City on 21 May 2020 (AFP)

Iraq's health minister has resigned following outcry over the deaths of as many as 130 people in a fire at a hospital in Baghdad.

According to Al-Sumaria News, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi accepted Hassan al-Tamimi's resignation on Tuesday.

Numerous voices had called for Tamimi to step down after a fire broke out at the Ibn al-Khatib hospital in Baghdad on 24 April, which claimed scores of lives and injured hundreds more.

In a statement, the prime minister's office said Tamimi's resignation had been accepted following the issuance of a report by an investigative committee looking into the accident.

'In Iraq, every building is neglecting industrial safety and work safety and occupational safety, in all places'

- Baghdad doctor

Kadhimi's cabinet on Tuesday also ordered the dismissal of the director of the Ibn Khatib hospital and other senior officials there.

The fire at the hospital, which had been catering almost exclusively for Covid-19 patients, is thought to have been caused by an exploding oxygen canister.

Health workers have regularly complained of poor safety standards in Iraq's hospitals.

One doctor working at the Rusafa Directorate of Health in Baghdad told Middle East Eye that the blast was an accident waiting to happen.

"The oxygen is stored inside the wards, and at the same time the people are smoking and cooking food inside these wards," he said, adding that families were unwilling to allow their infected relatives to be isolated within the wards.

"In Iraq, every building is neglecting industrial safety and work safety and occupational safety, in all places."

He added that the resignation of Tamimi was largely irrelevant.

"We have problem in infrastructure, we have a systemic problem. If we change a minister or even prime minister, it doesn't solve our problem," he said.

Health system at the brink

Tamimi had been suspended following the fire - his suspension was lifted on Tuesday but he resigned immediately after.

Kadhimi has ordered hospitals across Iraq to review and implement better safety procedures in the wake of the blaze.

Iraq has been struggling to cope with spiking Covid-19 infection numbers in recent weeks.

More than 15,000 people have died according to official figures, and over a million infections have been registered.

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Despite the best efforts of health workers, crumbling health infrastructure and widespread government corruption and negligence have been blamed for exacerbating the crisis.

On Sunday, the Iraqi Doctors Syndicate issued a statement criticising the decision to appoint Interior Minister Othman al-Ghanimi as head of the Ibn al-Khatib hospital investigative committee, saying it is he who ultimately bore responsibility for the accident.

"The decision to assign an investigative committee headed by the Ministry of Interior, which is one of the bodies responsible for protecting citizens and civil defence, does not seem neutral or provide reassurance on the progress of the investigation,” it said.

It added that the "deterioration of infrastructures" was the result of "chronic failure of the administrative and political system as a whole".