Sandstorm smothers Baghdad


By Andrew Hammond and Mussab al-Khairalla

Baghdad - On Monday, the city choked in one of its worst sandstorms in memory, which packed hospital emergency wards with people gasping 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 here, who suffer the threat of daily attacks by insurgents, nervous US 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.

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: "It's a useless day for business. I've had only one customer so far," he said.

With visibility reduced to 50m or less in some areas, drivers risked added danger near US patrols, which are prone to shoot to kill if vehicles stray too near.

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

Emad Assem, a meteorological expert here, 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.


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