In the land of death, births soar
HALA NAJI, 21, rested on a narrow bed earlier this month in the maternity ward of the Al-Wiyah Hospital, exhausted but beaming as she looked at her newborn daughter, Dalia, sleeping beside her in a metal crib.
In the next bed, Hadeel Kamel, 23, adoringly looked over at her first child, a little girl named Mariam, who was bundled in a white cap and blue blanket.
In the face of the continued violence gripping Iraq, these young women are part of an unexpected phenomenon - a massive rise in birthrate.
The number of babies born in Iraq has actually risen since the United States-led invasion 43 months ago, according to the health ministry. The rate of live births in the country has jumped from 29 per 1,000 people in 2003 to 37 per 1,000 last year.
The average birth rate across the Middle East is 25 per 1,000.
Even if the highest figure for deaths since 2003 in Iraq attributed to the war is taken - 655,000, according to The Lancet earlier this year - the health ministry birth data indicates Iraq's population of 27 million is still rising, with close to one million babies born annually in recent years and infant mortality around 5 per cent.
But such figures give no indication of the difficulty of giving birth. Relentless fighting, spontaneous road closures and a nightly curfew are all challenges expectant mothers and their families now face.
Fedhela Kareem, 45, Naji's mother, said: "Our relatives just called us from home and told us there are clashes in our neighbourhood, and it's not safe for us to return."
Thanaa Alladin Muhammed, a doctor who helped compile the statistics, said:
"People want to have children regardless of the violence."
Many parents who have lost children to the war also want to rebuild their family.
Fourat Hameed, 29, watched his three-year-old son Youseff die after the taxi they were riding in struck a roadside bomb near Baquba, 40 miles north of Baghdad, in September 2003. The following year, Hameed's wife, Dunai, gave birth to a girl, and last April they had another son, also named Youseff.
Hameed said: "Of course, we can never replace the child we lost, but we wanted a son."
Many physicians also say they are performing more scheduled caesarean deliveries than ever.
"Patients cannot always see their doctor or reach a health facility when they need to because of poor security," said Simone Kurchin, 38, an obstetrician at the private Dominican Sisters of St Catherine of Sienna Hospital in south Baghdad. "This is always a problem now."
The hospital has seen the number of Casesareans it performs double since 2003, from 1,107 to 2,447 last year when they outnumbered natural births.
Kurchin said patients who choose not to schedule Caesareans often arrive at the hospital overnight with a police escort; others are forced to remain at home and rely on a midwife.
Iraqi women seeking to give birth in a hospital but unable to afford the $200 it costs for most private facilities in Baghdad must turn to government-run hospitals. These hospitals, citizens said, often lack staff, equipment and medications.
Sabrya Fahed, whose daughter Kamel delivered her first child at the Al-Wiyah Hospital, said: "I gave birth for the last time in this same hospital 11 years ago and everything was much better then. Now everything is worse, from the treatment of the staff to the condition of the building."
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