Empty wards in Baghdad hospital offer hope

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BAGHDAD, Sep 17 (Reuters) A row of beds lies empty in the emergency ward of Baghdad's Yarmouk Hospital. The morgue, which once overflowed with corpses, is barely a quarter full.

Doctors at the hospital, a barometer of bloodshed in the Iraqi capital, say there has been a sharp fall in victims of violence admitted during a seven-month security campaign.

Last month the fall was particularly dramatic, with 70 per cent fewer bodies and half the number of wounded brought in compared to July, hospital director Haqi Ismail said.

''The major incidents, like explosions and car bombs, sometimes reached six or seven a day. Now it's more like one or two a week,'' he told Reuters.

The relative calm at the Yarmouk hospital lends weight to US and Iraqi government assertions that a security campaign launched around Baghdad in February has achieved results.

In one emergency ward at the hospital, in a Sunni Muslim district of west Baghdad which has suffered disproportionately from sectarian conflict, just two patients were being treated. Neither showed signs of serious injury.

At the hospital morgue, only two of the eight refrigerated rooms contain bodies, many of them dating to violence weeks ago.

Bloodstained floors in the empty sections were the only reminder of days when the morgue was so flooded with victims of bombings and shootings that the bodies overflowed, laid out on the ground outside.

''In the last month there's been a really noticeable reduction,'' said surgeon Ali Adel. ''Now most of the cases that come to us are ... random gunfire and accidents''.

''There are still cases (of militant violence) but compared to the last month, very few, thank God''.

LAST-DITCH EFFORT The security plan begun in February, backed by thousands of extra US troops, was seen as a last-ditch attempt to stem four years of conflict which raged since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians have died in that time.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said last week violence in Baghdad and surrounding areas had fallen by 75 percent and US President George W. Bush said ''ordinary life is beginning to return'' to the city.

Deputy Health Minister Amer Khozai said the picture from Yarmouk was reflected in figures from the main morgue in central Baghdad, where the number of bodies received had fallen from up to 180 on the worst of days to as low as 12 a day.

''The problem now is some cars exploding here and there ... (but) it's clear from the emergency departments in the hospitals that the situation is calm and stable in Baghdad,'' he said.

But despite the improvement in Baghdad, violence still rages in other regions of Iraq, and Sunni Islamist al Qaeda militants have promised a renewed campaign to mark the Muslim holy month of Ramadan which started last week.

As a Reuters television team filmed outside the hospital yesterday, an explosion less than a kilometre away shook the building, and a familiar black plume of smoke rose into the sky.

Within minutes the first casualties were rushed into the hospital. In all seven bodies, including three elderly women, were brought in, and doctors prepared for the influx of wounded.

''Realistically speaking, today there are still injuries, there are still wounded people, victims, and explosions,'' hospital director Ismail said.

REUTERS SKB PM1515

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