London Times Online – 2006-12-04 23:00:58
Hala Jaber, Amman (December 03, 2006) — Everyone seems to be desperate for money to cope with the insecurities of life in Baghdad these days, so Dr Salim Jawad was not surprised when a hospital porter took him to one side and asked whether he would be interested in making some cash.
Jawad, a busy surgeon and a Sunni, thought he was going to be urged to smuggle drugs out of the building so that they could be sold on the street. But the brutal proposition from the porter Ali, a Shi’ite from the Sadr City suburb of the capital, was far more shocking.
For every patient the doctor identified from the predominantly Sunni provinces of Diyala and Anbar and from the Adhamiyah district of Baghdad, he was told, he would be paid $300 (£151).
Jawad realised that he was being invited to pass death sentences on patients at the Medical City hospital in return for swift and surreptitious payments.
“You can make a fortune,” Ali told him calmly. “Doctor, if you have those patients in the future just tell me and I will give you $300 just for that information . . . and do not tell anyone about this little talk.”
In an e-mail sent to The Sunday Times through intermediaries last week, at considerable risk to those involved, and in telephone interviews, Jawad – whose name has been changed for his protection – said the approach seemed to confirm his suspicions that some Sunni patients were being kidnapped by Shi’ite militias.
He believed that others were being murdered in their beds with drugs, such as an anaesthetic capable of causing a heart attack, he said.
Jawad’s concerns are shared by a growing number of doctors, patients and government officials, who are suggesting that Baghdad’s hospitals – supposed havens from the fighting – are being drawn towards the frontline in the spreading sectarian conflict.
There is said to be mounting evidence that Shi’ite death squads are being encouraged to roam hospitals in search of fresh Sunni victims, allegedly at the behest of officials in the Shi’ite-dominated health ministry.
During the summer Jawad first became worried by the mysterious deaths of several patients who had been transferred from American field hospitals.
As others went missing, often in strange circumstances, he learnt that the Mahdi Army of the radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr had infiltrated the Medical City’s porters and cleaners.
“I’m an Iraqi doctor, working in one of the biggest hospitals in Iraq and I want you to read this carefully because the suffering and the lives of many poor people have become the cheapest things that you can buy in my country,” Jawad’s e-mail began.
The patients who were disappearing and dying were often civilians injured by crossfire in shoot-outs, he noted.
“One of my patients in his twenties, suffering from a bullet injury to the abdomen, whom I had operated on and who was doing well, suddenly died. I had decided to discharge him the following day – it was his sixth post-operative day – when he died without any obvious cause,” Jawad recalled.
He investigated further and by the end of August had decided something was wrong. “I found that many patients were dying with no cause. Most of them were well and ready to walk out of the hospital. Instead they left in wooden boxes,” he said.
Jawad then discovered that their medical records were being lost or altered. “Someone was trying to hide something terrible,” he said.
When another patient from the Sunni Amiriyah district needed two pints of blood, two men, who claimed to be relatives of another patient, offered to go to the blood bank to fetch it. “We waited a long time but they never came back,” Jawad said.
That night three militiamen walked into the hospital and, unchallenged by the security guards, demanded one of Jawad’s patients by name.
“The family of another patient hid him and refused to hand him over,” he said. “But the following day army members came and took him away, and said they were moving him to another hospital. Since then we haven’t heard anything from him.”
According to Jawad, most of the support staff in the hospital come from the Shi’ite slums of Sadr City. One day last month, he said, some of them placed two patients from the Sunni Diyala province on trolleys and told him they were going to the x-ray department.
Jawad was busy and it was 15 minutes before he asked a porter where his patients were. “He took me aside and said, ‘Please, doctor, stay away from this and don’t ask questions that may hurt you’,” Jawad said.
Shortly afterwards, a paraplegic from Kirkuk, in northern Iraq, was admitted from an American hospital. Jawad completed the paperwork and began treatment before sending the man to his ward.
On his evening round, Jawad found the patient’s bed was empty. “I asked about the patient and his papers and the staff told me that he had left.
“I asked them how a paraplegic with a tracheotomy tube could move one step.” One of the staff turned to Jawad, stared him in the face and told him to forget it. The family of another patient later told him three men had taken the paraplegic away.
Last month, an anxious paramedic approached Jawad. “What he told me,” Jawad said, “was like opening the gates of hell.”
The paramedic took a phial from the pocket of his white coat and showed it to him. “It was a drug called Neostigmine used by anaesthetists. The only place to find this drug is in operating theatres,” he said. Injected in high doses, it will cause cardiac arrest.
“Who gave you this drug?” Jawad asked. “The ministry of health security gave it to me and asked me to give it to one of the patients,” the paramedic said. “But I can’t go through with it.”
“How did they know about the patient?” Jawad asked. The answer confirmed what the porter he called Ali had told him. “If you call them and tell them about patients from Anbar, Diyala or Adhamiyah, you get $300. If you help to get rid of one, you get another $300.”
Jawad said that this patient was a former pilot in Saddam Hussein’s air force, admitted to hospital after a bomb explosion.
“The life of a human being was worth $600 and there were many people willing to kill patients for money,” Jawad said.
Jawad said he had also been told that potassium chloride, which is used for lethal injections in executions, was being administered to Sunni patients.
The account appears to corroborate a US intelligence report last December, 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, a follower of Moqtada al-Sadr.
Jawad continues to work in the Medical City hospital in fear for his life, the lives of his family and, above all, those of the patients he has sworn to save. It was in spite of this fear that he contacted The Sunday Times “I know I will be killed if they discover my name and that my family will be hurt too, but I beg you to help these poor people in any way that you can,” he wrote.
“They are living in a country governed by militias and no one here will listen. I call on humanity to heed their suffering.”
Slaughter in Street Market
At least 51 died and more than 90 were wounded when three car bombs exploded almost simultaneously in a street market in central Baghdad yesterday.
The bombs, aimed at predominantly Shi’ite shoppers in the Sadriya district, were placed 100 yards apart to ensure the maximum casualties.
The attack prompted warnings of retaliation by Shi’ite militias. Car bombs in the predominantly Shi’ite Sadr City slum last month, which killed 215 people, triggered several revenge killings.
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