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82 killed in Baghdad COVID-19 hospital fire: Interior ministry

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(Last Updated On: April 25, 2021)

A fire sparked by an oxygen tank explosion killed at least 82 people and injured 110 at a hospital in Baghdad that had been equipped to house COVID-19 patients, an Interior Ministry spokesman said on Sunday.

“We urgently need to review safety measures at all hospitals to prevent such a painful incident from happening in future,” spokesman Khalid al-Muhanna told state television, announcing the toll.

The fire erupted on Saturday at the Ibn Khatib hospital in the Diyala Bridge area.

Ali Bayati, a member of Iraq’s semi-official High Commission for Human Rights, had said earlier a final death toll had not yet been officially announced but it could be between 30 to 45.

Patients’ relatives scrambled during the blaze to save their loved ones.

A man who had been visiting his brother described people jumping out of windows to escape.

“The fire spread, like fuel … I took my brother out to the street, next to the checkpoint. Then I came (back) and went up from there. To the last floor, that did not burn. I found a girl suffocating, about 19 years old, she was suffocating, she was about to die,” said Ahmed Zaki.

“I took her on my shoulders and I ran down. People were jumping… Doctors fell on the cars. Everyone was jumping. And I kept going up from there, got people and come down again,” Zaki said.

Patients were moved to other hospitals, medical sources said. But several families were still at the hospital hours after the fire had been extinguished, after failing to find them elsewhere.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi ordered an investigation.

“Such an incident is evidence of negligence and therefore I directed that an investigation be launched immediately and for the hospital’s manager and the heads of security and maintenance to be detained along with all those concerned until we identify those negligent and hold them accountable,” he said in a statement.

Iraq’s healthcare system, ruined by decades of sanctions, war and neglect, has been stretched during the coronavirus crisis. The country has recorded a total of 102,5288 infections, including 15,217 deaths, the health ministry said on Saturday.

Security has improved in recent years but Iraq still suffers from political violence, including militia rocket attacks on foreign forces and a low-level Islamic State insurgency.

Accidents due to neglect and wrecked infrastructure have compounded the woes of ordinary Iraqis.

In 2019, at least 90 people died when an overloaded ferry carrying families on an outing sank in the Tigris river in the northern city of Mosul.

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Pilgrims from around the world gather in Kerbala for Arbaeen

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(Last Updated On: September 28, 2021)

Masses gathered in Kerbala on Tuesday for the religious pilgrimage of Arbaeen and visited the shrines of Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas.

In a normal year, up to 20 million mostly Shi’ite Muslims take part in the Arbaeen pilgrimage in the holy city of Kerbala to commemorate Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, who was slain in battle in 680 by the Muslim Caliph of the day.

In 2020 and due to the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis, Iraqi authorities had barred entry to most foreign pilgrims, including some three million Iranians.

“Last year we were prevented from performing the pilgrimage. But now thank God, it was granted to us”, an Iranian pilgrim, Hamid Muqaddam said in Kerbala.

This year, Iraqi authorities allowed a limited number of pilgrims from abroad to enter Iraq and attend Arbaeen.

On Monday, Iraqi authorities recorded 2,447 new cases of coronavirus infections and 32 deaths.

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German Social Democrats beat conservatives in vote to decide Merkel successor

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(Last Updated On: September 27, 2021)

Germany’s Social Democrats narrowly won Sunday’s national election, projected results showed, and claimed a “clear mandate” to lead a government for the first time since 2005 and to end 16 years of conservative-led rule under Angela Merkel.

The centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) were on track for 26.0% of the vote, ahead of 24.5% for Merkel’s CDU/CSU conservative bloc, projections for broadcaster ZDF showed, but both groups believed they could lead the next government.

With neither major bloc commanding a majority, and both reluctant to repeat their awkward “grand coalition” of the past four years, the most likely outcome is a three-way alliance led by either the Social Democrats or Merkel’s conservatives.

Agreeing a new coalition could take months, and will likely involve the smaller Greens and liberal Free Democrats (FDP).

“We are ahead in all the surveys now,” the Social Democrats’ chancellor candidate, Olaf Scholz, said in a round table discussion with other candidates after the vote.

“It is an encouraging message and a clear mandate to make sure that we get a good, pragmatic government for Germany,” he added after earlier addressing jubilant SPD supporters.

The SPD’s rise heralds a swing left for Germany and marks a remarkable comeback for the party, which has recovered some 10 points in support in just three months to improve on its 20.5% result in the 2017 national election.

Scholz, 63, would become the fourth post-war SPD chancellor after Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt and Gerhard Schroeder. Finance minister in Merkel’s cabinet, he is a former mayor of Hamburg.

Scholz’s conservative rival Armin Laschet, signalled his bloc was not ready yet to concede, though his supporters were subdued.

“It hasn’t always been the first-placed party that provided the chancellor,” Laschet, 60, told the round table. “I want a government where every partner is involved, where everyone is visible – not one where only the chancellor gets to shine,” he said in an early attempt to woo smaller parties.

Schmidt ruled in the late 1970s and early 1980s in coalition with the FDP even though his Social Democrats had fewer parliamentary seats than the conservative bloc.

Attention will now shift to informal discussions followed by more formal coalition negotiations, which could take months, leaving Merkel in charge in a caretaker role.

Scholz and Laschet both said they would aim to strike a coalition deal before Christmas.

Merkel plans to step down after the election, making the vote an era-changing event to set the future course of Europe’s largest economy.

She has stood large on the European stage almost since taking office in 2005 – when George W. Bush was U.S. president, Jacques Chirac in the Elysee Palace in Paris and Tony Blair British prime minister.

After a domestic-focused election campaign, Berlin’s allies in Europe and beyond may have to wait for months before they can see whether the new German government is ready to engage on foreign issues to the extent they would like.

A row between Washington and Paris over a deal for Australia to buy U.S. instead of French submarines has put Germany in an awkward spot between allies, but also gives Berlin the chance to help heal relations and rethink their common stance on China.

On hearing that the SPD were slightly ahead in polls, U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters in Washington: “I’ll be darned… They’re solid.”

On economic policy, French President Emmanuel Macron is eager to forge a common European fiscal policy, which the Greens support but the CDU/CSU and FDP reject. The Greens also want “a massive expansion offensive for renewables”.

“Germany will end up with a rather weak chancellor who will struggle to get behind any kind of ambitious fiscal reform at the EU level,” said Naz Masraff at political risk consultancy Eurasia.

Whatever coalition ends up in power, Germany’s friends can at least take heart that moderate centrism has prevailed, and the populism that has taken hold in other European countries failed to break through.

The projected results for ZDF showed the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) on track for 10.5%, worse than four years ago when they stormed into the national parliament with 12.6% of the vote, and with all mainstream groupings ruling out a coalition with the party.

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Erdogan says Turkey plans to buy more Russian defense systems

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(Last Updated On: September 27, 2021)

President Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey still intended to buy a second batch of S-400 missile defense systems from Russia, a move that could deepen a rift with NATO ally Washington and trigger new U.S. sanctions, Reuters reported.

According to the report Washington says the S-400s pose a threat to its F-35 fighter jets and to NATO’s broader defense systems. Turkey says it was unable to procure air defense systems from any NATO ally on satisfactory terms.

“In the future, nobody will be able to interfere in terms of what kind of defense systems we acquire, from which country at what level,” Erdogan said in an interview that aired on CBS News’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday.

“Nobody can interfere with that. We are the only ones to make such decisions.”

The United States imposed sanctions on Turkey’s Defense Industry Directorate, its chief, Ismail Demir, and three other employees in December following the country’s acquisition of a first batch of S-400s, Reuters said.

Talks continued between Russia and Turkey about the delivery of a second batch, which Washington has repeatedly said would almost certainly trigger new sanctions.

“We urge Turkey at every level and opportunity not to retain the S-400 system and to refrain from purchasing any additional Russian military equipment,” said a State Department spokesperson when asked about Erdogan’s comments.

“We continue to make clear to Turkey that any significant new Russian arms purchases would risk triggering CAATSA 231 sanctions separate from and in addition to those imposed in December 2020,” the spokesperson added, referring to the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.

The spokesperson also said the United States regards Turkey as an ally and friend and seeks ways to strengthen their partnership “even when we disagree.”

Erdogan will meet with President Vladimir Putin in Russia on Wednesday to discuss issues including the violence in northwestern Syria, read the report.

Erdogan also said that U.S. President Joe Biden never raised the issue of Turkey’s human rights track record, seen as extremely troublesome by international rights advocacy groups, confirming Reuters reporting from earlier in September.

Asked whether Biden brought up the issue during their June meeting on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Brussels, Erdogan said: “No he didn’t. And because we don’t have any problems of that nature in terms of freedoms, Turkey is incomparably free.”

Turkey is among the top jailers of journalists, according to figures from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), while Human Rights Watch says Erdogan’s authoritarian rule has been consolidated by the passage of legislation that contravenes international human rights obligations, Reuters reported.

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