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Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammad Shia Al Sudani at a church to offer condolences following a fatal fire at a wedding celebration, in Hamdaniya, Iraq, September 28, 2023. Image Credit: REUTERS

HAMDANIYA, Iraq: Calls for accountability grew on Thursday for the victims of a deadly fire at an Iraqi wedding celebration in a Christian town as grief-stricken mourners attended a packed memorial service and families buried their loved ones.

More than 100 people died and at least 150 were injured on Tuesday evening in an inferno that government officials have said was enabled by a lack of safety and security measures and the use of highly flammable materials in the building.

In a sermon interrupted at times by the wails of women clad in black, a priest at Al Tahira Church in Hamdaniya - also known as Qaraqosh - told mourners that Iraq had been united in grief but criticized officials for “your corruption, your favouritism.” “Nothing is up to standard in this country,” he said as mourners, some crying, others holding pictures of the deceased, listened on.

“We have to hold those who are responsible accountable enough, enough!” Criticism of a lax approach to public safety is common in Iraq, a country where the state has been weakened by recurring conflict since the 2003 US invasion, and where services are impaired by pervasive corruption for which few senior officials are ever held to account.

The tragedy has revived memories of deadly fires that swept through two hospitals in Iraq in 2021, killing at least 174 people in all, that were at the time blamed on negligence, lax regulations and corruption.

Government officials have announced the arrest of 14 people over Tuesday night’s fire, including the owners of the events hall, and promised a swift investigation with results announced within 72 hours.

The government has also ordered immediate inspections of large public gathering spaces such as hotels, schools and hospitals.

PM's visit

“There is no such thing as destiny in Christianity; this is manmade,” said Botrous Kareem, a local resident who lost five cousins in the fire and was on his way to a cemetery to attend more burials. “God has nothing to do with this.”

Iraq’s prime minister visited injured patients and the families of victims.

Mohammed Shia Al Sudani arrived in Nineveh province early Thursday with a delegation of ministers and security officials, state television reported. He met with the wounded and family members of victims at Hamdaniyah Hospital and Al Jumhoori Hospital. He later visited the Syriac Catholic Mar Behnam Monastery to express his condolences to victims.

The damaged wedding hall following the fire. Image Credit: Reuters

Around 250 panicked guests surged for the exits on Tuesday night in the Haitham Royal Wedding Hall in the predominantly Christian area of Hamdaniya near Mosul after the ceiling panels above a pyrotechnic machine burst into flames.

Two critically burned victims — a 30-year-old woman and a 4-year-old child — died from their injuries in the hospital, a health official told The Associated Press on Thursday. The remains of a child and a woman were also recovered under the rubble at the wedding venue, according to a security official. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

The Interior Ministry said highly flammable building materials contributed to the disaster and accused the owners of violating safety and security protocols. The tragedy was the latest to hit Iraq’s Christian minority, which has dwindled to a fraction of its former size over the past decade.

A security official told the AP that one of the venue’s owners and 13 workers and employees are currently under investigation. The official said that negligence caused the incident and that the government is preparing to compensate survivors and the families of victims. He speak on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.