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Hospital in embattled Iraqi city loses patients to fear

By Jane Arraf
CNN Senior Baghdad Correspondent
Five-month-old Khadija's father risked his life to take his daughter to a hospital.




TAL AFAR, Iraq (CNN) -- Khadija's father bribed and begged to get past a police checkpoint to bring his infant daughter to a hospital most people are afraid to enter.

"I said, 'Look she's about to die -- let me take her to the hospital to take care of her before she dies -- let her at least see a doctor,' Abbas Ali says he told the police.

In this nearly deserted hospital, the only functioning in the city, Ali watches his 5-month-old daughter's every labored breath. She lies on a metal cot beneath a clattering ceiling fan -- so tiny she's covered with a scarf for a blanket.

Severely dehydrated, she has no tears left to cry. A fly settles around her cracked lips.

Her father alternates between elation and despair.

"Look at her eyes -- Oh, God, let it stay -- look at how her face is now," he says when she wriggles. A moment later, her eyes momentarily roll up in their sockets. "At home ... she looked like she was dead -- her eyes like this -- just always staying like that," he says.

Khadija's mother, Aynee Abdul Qader, holds her 2-year-old son. They're all weary, she says. "She's been like this two months," she says.

They live near the ancient castle -- adjacent to one of the most dangerous parts of town. She says they were afraid to leave their house to bring her.

Dr. Omar Ahmed says Khadija has been given antibiotics. He says she has a 50 percent chance of surviving.

Khadija is one of only three patients in the building. The hospital has 200 beds and just a few weeks ago was treating 200 to 300 patients a day.

Since then, the U.S. and Iraqi armies have launched a major operation in this city of 200,000 near the Syrian border to capture or kill insurgents. The violence has left the the city shattered.

Doctors here say most people are now afraid to come here -- afraid they'll be caught in the crossfire between insurgents and the Iraqi army guarding the hospital.

Ahmed says some of the patients who come to the hospital refuse to stay, saying they're safer at home.

He's been doing his residency at the Tal Afar hospital for only five days, but the young Baghdad doctor has already requested a transfer.

"Baghdad is safer than Mosul and Mosul is safer than here. ... Tal Afar is the most dangerous area in Iraq now."

The hospital is a particular target. U.S. and Iraqi forces seized it from insurgents two weeks ago. A soldier from the U.S. Army's Third Armored Cavalry Regiment was killed securing the building.

"Prior to us going there the hospital was considered under anti-Iraq forces control," says Lt. Col. Christopher Hickey. "So much so that the police did not want to go to the hospital to take their wounded."

As in the rest of Tal Afar, most of the time there's no running water in the hospital and in the daytime, no electricity. One of the generators was shot up and the staff hasn't been able to repair it.

Dr. Adel Abdul Razak said pregnant mothers were risking driving to the city of Singar or to Mosul -- a potentially dangerous hour's drive away -- a week before their due date to avoid having to go into labor in the Tal Afar hospital.

"The Iraqis ... have been caught between two fires," Razak says. "The fire of the Iraqi army who are protecting them and the fire of the rest who are attacking the army."

Hickey said one of the problems is that insurgents are moving around the city, where there is no functioning police force and, up until recently, entire neighborhoods were in the grip of the insurgents.

He said he believed the military's recent operation had disrupted their attacks: "The question is for how long."

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