February 1, 2010 / 1:55 PM / 8 years ago

Attacks ebb but Iraqi doctors face death, extortion

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi doctor Mussab Abdul-Latif recalls the time a man threw a brick at him, accusing him of not doing his job well, as he tried to organize medical help for victims of a bombing in the southern city of Basra.

The incident was just one of hundreds of attacks, threats, kidnappings and tribal demands for blood money that doctors in Iraq routinely suffer at the hands of relatives of patients who die or feel a little pain.

"We are not supermen. Citizens want magic," said Latif.

"If we conduct a surgical procedure and a patient cries out, they think a doctor should be beaten. We are supposed to do everything without pain and that is simply impossible."

Violence in Iraq has ebbed over the past two years as the sectarian slaughter between majority Shi'ites and once dominant Sunnis ended, but Iraqi doctors still face daily dangers.

Considered among the elite of Iraqi society, medical specialists became a target of insurgents and militias seeking to sow mayhem, and kidnappers in search of rich ransoms. Hundreds have been killed since 2003 and many more fled abroad.

A big problem, particularly in the Shi'ite south, is tribal demands for compensation if a patient dies. Doctors in Diwaniya, where tribal customs often have the upper hand over the rule of law, conducted three sit-ins last year to protest.

The Iraqi cabinet endorsed a draft law in January that would allow doctors to carry weapons, outlaw tribal demands for compensation and make attempted extortion of doctors punishable by a prison sentence or fines.

Many doctors say that carrying a gun is not an option.

DAY OF TERROR

On a quiet day recently in the emergency room of the Medicine City hospital in central Baghdad where Latif is the doctor in charge, around nine doctors staffed a 22-bed ward.

Two were busy examining an elderly woman, others were chatting. Most said they had been verbally abused, hit with stones and threatened with a gun.

Doctor Nesrat Shaker, 30, said he understood the anger of relatives of patients whose lives doctors are unable to save.

"Sometimes they have a right, but doctors can't do their work while 1,000 eyes are watching them," Shaker said.

Shaker said he was once threatened with a gun by soldiers who had brought one of their comrades in for treatment after he had been shot in the leg.

Shaker tried to stop the bleeding but could not work under the constant shouting by the soldier's colleagues and the threat of their weapons. Eventually, hospital security guards helped him flee while the emergency room closed for the day in protest.

"We lived in terror that day," said Shaker. "(But) the joy I get from my work overshadows the problems that I face."

The Health Ministry said part of the problem was that hospitals did not have enough security measures in place.

"As a consequence we do not achieve our aim of treating patients in an appropriate way," said the deputy minister of health, Khamis al-Saad.

In one recent case in Diwaniya, officials said that relatives of a patient who died in surgery managed to extort 80 million Iraqi dinars ($74,000) from a doctor.

"If the government were strong, it would not let them dare to do these things," said Doctor Mekki Jaafar of the Diwaniya health directorate.

Editing by Michael Christie and Tim Pearce

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