By Amina Ismail
HAMDANIYA, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraqi Christians once driven from their village by Islamic State are blaming another enemy for an inferno that killed more than 100 of their friends and relatives at a wedding this week: chronic political rot and lax governance.
After returning from years of exile during Iraq’s war with the extremist Islamists, residents rebuilding their lives in their hometown of Hamdaniya said that where the vanquished jihadists had failed to kill them, corruption succeeded.
“Islamic State didn’t kill us, this catastrophe killed us,” Priest Boutros Shito said, speaking at a local church hall while mourners buried the remains of their loved ones.
Shito lost both his parents, two of his sisters and two nephews to the fire, which tore through a packed wedding hall in Hamdaniya, also called Qaraqosh, on Wednesday. More than 100 people died, government officials said.
“In this country we always wait until a disaster occurs and then deal with the results,” Shito said. “Our home is now empty of family because of greed 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.
Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani visited victims of the blaze at two local hospitals on Thursday and said he directed that the strictest-possible legal penalties be imposed “on those who were negligent and responsible for the tragic fire incident”.
Witnesses said the blaze began about an hour into the event when flares set fire to a ceiling decoration. They said the hall had no visible fire extinguishers and few emergency exits and that it took firefighters half an hour to get there.
It is the latest in a series of tragic accidents across Iraq that have killed hundreds of people in the last few years, including a fire at a Baghdad hospital in 2021 and a capsized river ferry in Mosul in 2019.
All the accidents have been blamed on negligence, lax regulations and corruption.
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 U.S. invasion, and where services are impaired by pervasive corruption.
ISIS GONE, CORRUPTION ENTRENCHED
After decades of dictatorship and internal oppression, the 2003 invasion unleashed violence and civil war that fuelled extremist groups such as Al Qaeda.
In 2014, in a spillover from the Syrian civil war next door, Al Qaeda successor Islamic State marauded into northern Iraq and took over a third of the country.
Majority-Christian Hamdaniya was among the scores of towns and cities Islamic State fighters captured after declaring an Islamic caliphate from nearby Mosul, Iraq’s second-biggest city.
Most of Hamdaniya’s inhabitants fled, fearing persecution and death at the hands of the jihadists.
Iraqi and international forces expelled the militants from Hamdaniya in 2016 during a campaign to defeat the group in Iraq and Syria.
Many residents have since returned with the Islamist threat gone. But after the wedding fire this week, some say any hopes for a better future are being crushed by the reality of a haphazard and dysfunctional effort to rebuild their homeland.
The events hall where the fire took place this week was built in 2016 right after the Hamdaniya was recaptured as a way to encourage the return of normal life.
Government officials say a lack of safety and security measures and the use of highly flammable materials in the building helped the fire spread.
In a sermon interrupted at times by the wails of women clad in black, a priest at Al-Tahira Church in Hamdaniya told mourners on Thursday 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.
(Reporting by Amina Ismail in Hamdaniya and Timour Azhari in Baghdad; Writing by Timour Azhari; Editing by Christina Fincher and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)