Iraq

Choking Iraqis fill hospitals in crippling sandstorm

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By Andrew Hammond and Mussab al-Khairalla
BAGHDAD, Aug 8 (Reuters) - Baghdad was choking on Monday in one of its worst sandstorms in memory, which packed hospital emergency wards with people rasping for breath and cleared roads of traffic.

A key meeting to discuss Iraq's draft constitution with President Jalal Talabani was put back by a day because of the weather. Meteorologists said a rare air pressure system over Iraq's western desert was dumping sand and dust on the city.

It was yet another trial for ordinary Iraqis in the capital, who suffer the threat of daily attacks by insurgents, nervous U.S. troops who shoot to kill if threatened, and electricity and water shortages during the searing summer heat.

Hospitals were overflowing with people, many of them elderly, suffering breathing difficulties; their families and medical staff complained about a lack of services and supplies.

The Yarmuk hospital said more than 800 patients arrived during the morning alone.

"There are so many ill people coming in, but we just don't have the staff for this. I have a lack of oxygen to supply people, a lack of people to serve them," said Qusay Hasnawy, the main doctor dealing with out-patients at Yarmuk.

One woman was frantically fanning her teenage daughter while she waited to receive oxygen and an injection.

"This is only a hospital in name. There are no services here for treating people," she railed.

ORANGE HAZE

The streets of the city of over four million were an eerie orange colour as the sun burned through the sand; the few who dared walk them did so with building workers' face masks or a simple wet cloth over the nose and mouth.

Dust clouds eddied even in doors, coating every surface.

Supermarket owner Mohammed Salih was the only trader to open shop in his neighbourhood of east Baghdad: "It's a useless day for business. I've had only one customer so far," he said.

With visibility reduced to 50 metres (yards) or less in some areas, drivers risked added danger near U.S. patrols, which are prone to shoot to kill if vehicles stray too near.

A fierce sandstorm in March 2003 held up the U.S. advance in southern Iraq during the invasion to bring down Saddam Hussein.

"I have a 7-month-old daughter who isn't breathing well," said Somaya Mehdi, as she struggled to wipe the film of dust from her kitchen for the second time in a few hours.

"We can't open the windows now when the electricity cuts off and stops the air-conditioning."

Emad Assem, a meteorological expert in Baghdad, said high pressure in Iraq's western desert had clashed with lower pressure from the Mediterranean -- the usual cause of freak sandstorms that occasionally hit the country.

"I expect it will continue over the next two days but not as badly as today," he said.

Much of the rest of Iraq was spared the smothering haze:

"I was shocked to find this," said Tahseen Ali, a visitor to the city who had driven up from the south on Monday.

"I pray to God to save us from His anger." (Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim and Haider Salaheddin in Baghdad)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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