MOSUL, Iraq — Members of al-Qaida in Mesopotamia have been holding up blood banks and hospitals at gunpoint, stealing blood for their wounded fighters rather than risk having them arrested at medical facilities, according to Iraqi doctors, employees at health centers and the Sunni insurgents themselves.
Iraqi health officials say the raids have been occurring for some time in provinces with large Sunni Arab populations and appear to signal an insurgency desperate to safeguard its core group of fighters. But the insurgents have a diminished ability to intimidate hospital staffs into caring for them directly and dwindling support among fellow Sunni Arabs, including doctors, officials said.
The Iraqi security force members that guard medical facilities have often stood idly by as the armed robberies take place, according to workers. This has reinforced doubts about Iraq’s ability to take on even a diminished insurgency as the United States continues to reduce its troops in the country.
Hadad Hamad, a doctor in Anbar province, said the raids occurred in western Iraq as early as 2005, when "al-Qaida fighters burst into Al Qaim Hospital’s blood bank, seized large quantities of blood and took it" to a nearby village, apparently to treat their wounded.
The hospital, near the Syrian border, continues to be the focus of al-Qaida raids. This summer, the hospital was ordered closed for several days to protect workers after doctors and other staff members had received death threats for refusing to cooperate with al-Qaida’s demands for blood and other aid.
What is not clear however, is whether the stolen blood would do an injured person any good. Imperfectly matched blood can prove fatal.
"Even if you had the same blood type, you’d have to make a perfect match," said Dr. Yaseen Ahmed Abbass, director of the Red Crescent Society in Iraq. "It is not an easy procedure."
But some Iraqi doctors working in Sunni areas believe that al-Qaida has its own specialists who perform blood transfusions and treat shrapnel and bullet wounds — and carry out more gruesome procedures as well.
"One patient in our hospital had been kidnapped by insurgents and then released," said Abu Harith, a doctor in Mosul, a still violent city in the north. "Both of his hands and one of his ears had been amputated in a very precise and skilled way — with a skill that a newly trained doctor would not have had.
"This is evidence to me that the insurgency is self-reliant in dealing with its wounded," he said.
Since the killing in April of al-Qaida in Mesopotamia’s top leaders, the U.S. military has portrayed the insurgents as a group in disarray.
"We think that they are involved in trying to figure out what’s the next step for them here in Iraq, so obviously we’re trying to exploit that," Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said this month.
But the U.S. military said it was not aware of hospitals and blood banks being held up by al-Qaida fighters looking for blood.
Officials in the Iraqi government’s Health, Defense and National Security Ministries also said they had not heard about the raids.
Hospital employees say they have not reported the problem to the Iraqi security forces for fear of reprisal or because they believe the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army have members sympathetic to the insurgency. They said the blood raids have taken place in Diyala, Salahuddin, Anbar, and Nineveh provinces, most frequently in Mosul, the capital of Nineveh province.
Dr. Ahmed al-Jubori, head of Mosul’s Health Department, said that the raids started around 2005, and that until a recent period of relative calm, Mosul’s hospitals "became a place of conflict between the insurgency and the U.S. and Iraqi police forces.
"The security forces used to arrest any injured person that was in the hospital, so the insurgents started to take their injured people to private places and started to take blood from the blood bank without permission," he said.
Al-Jubori said the problem had eased. Hospital workers in Mosul disagreed.
Abu Hazim, an employee at Mosul General Hospital’s blood bank, said Iraqi police officers had come recently, seeking blood after a car bomb exploded at a nearby police station and piling the bags into a cardboard tomato box.
Less than an hour later, he said, a group of armed al-Qaida men came in, demanding blood for their own injured.
"I swore to them that there was nothing left, that the police had taken everything," he said. "They became angry and threatened to kill us and blow the place up if we did not cooperate. So I went and searched the emergency containers and gave them two bags. Before they left, they told me: ‘Let this be a warning. Next time we will kill you."’
A man who claims to be an al-Qaida fighter, who identified himself with the nom de guerre of Abu Mustafa al-Mejmai, said insurgents has been compelled to steal blood due to military pressure from U.S. and Iraqi forces. The insurgents, he said, had also established their own clinics staffed by doctors and nurses.
"During the great jihad battles we were wounded severely," he said. "Therefore we tried to be self-reliant to prevent the mujahedeen from falling into the hands of the invaders."
The U.S. military has found the remnants of medical clinics in al-Qaida strongholds in Diyala province.
On at least one occasion, insurgents and the police arrived at a Mosul hospital at the same time, said Abu Karam, who works at a blood bank in the city.
"Two men came in and said they were from ‘the state’ and that they wanted a certain blood type," he said. "I was very scared because four policemen who had brought in an injured colleague were standing nearby. I thought the police and the insurgents had probably been shot in the same incident. The police heard the conversation, yet they did not do anything."
He added: "I asked the men, ‘From which state are you from?’ They said: ‘We are from the Islamic State of Iraq. Give us the blood without delay.’ I requested the required medical form from them, but they said, ‘Are you new here?’ I answered, ‘Yes.’ So they said, ‘Go ask. Everybody knows us and everybody knows the fate of those who do not cooperate. Do you understand?’ Meanwhile, the police were listening and did not do anything. So I handed them the blood and they left.
"I asked the police, ‘Didn’t you hear what they said?’ The policemen smiled and said, ‘We are not ready to confront them while we have our own injured men waiting for us.’"