Baghdad: At least 23 people died when a fire broke out Sunday in a coronavirus intensive care unit in the capital of Iraq, a country with long-dilapidated health infrastructure now facing mounting COVID-19 cases.
The explosion was caused by "a fault in the storage of oxygen cylinders", medical sources told AFP.
Iraq's hospitals have been worn down by decades of conflict and poor investment, with shortages in medicines and hospital beds.
On Wednesday, the number of COVID-19 cases in the country surpassed one million, the highest of any Arab state.
In the middle of the night, as dozens of relatives were at the bedsides of the 30 patients in the intensive care unit at Ibn al-Khatib hospital - reserved for the most severe COVID -19 cases in Baghdad - flames spread across multiple floors, another medical source said.
Videos on social media showed firefighters trying to extinguish flames at the hospital on the southeastern outskirts of the Iraqi capital, as patients and their relatives tried to flee the building.
Medical and security sources told AFP that 23 people had been killed and some fifty others injured in the blaze.
The civil defence told Iraqi state news they "rescued 90 people out of 120 patients and their relatives" at the scene, but could not give an exact number of the dead and wounded.
The fire - which according to several sources was caused by negligence - immediately sparked anger on social media in the country.
Baghdad Governor Mohammed Jaber called on the health ministry "to establish a commission of enquiry so that those who did not do their jobs may be brought to justice".
In a statement, the government's human rights commission said the incident was "a crime against patients exhausted by COVID-19 who put their lives in the hands of the health ministry and its institutions and instead of being treated, perished in flames."
The commission called on Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhemi to sack Health Minister Hassan Al Tamimi and "bring him to justice".
Kadhemi responded by calling for "an immediate investigation with those in charge at the ministry" and demanded that the "hospital director, head of security and the technical maintenance team be sent to the investigators and not be released until those at fault have been brought to justice".
By the early hours of Sunday, while the civil defence said the fire was under control, the health ministry had not issued any statement or announced how many people had been killed or wounded.
The first cases of COVID-19 appeared in Iraq in February 2020.
The health ministry has since recorded a total of 1,025,288 cases of the disease and 15,217 deaths.
It has said it carries out around 40,000 tests daily from a population of 40 million.
Those patients who can often prefer to source oxygen tanks for treatment at home, rather than go to overcrowded and run-down hospitals.
The country launched its vaccination campaign last month, and has received nearly 650,000 doses of different vaccines - the majority by donation or through the Covax programme, which is helping lower and middle income nations to procure vaccines.
As of Wednesday, 274,343 people had received at least one dose, the ministry said.
Health authorities have faced an uphill battle to convince Iraqis to get vaccinated, in the face of widespread scepticism over the jab and public reluctance to wear masks since the start of the pandemic.