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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

'I thought it was an explosion': Deadliest quake of 2017 causes panic among war-weary Iraqis

Iraqi health authorities said most of the hundreds of people treated after the earthquake were suffering from shock

People gather around a levelled building in the mountainous town of Darbandikhan in Iraqi Kurdistan on November 13, 2017, following a 7.3-magnitude quake that hit the Iraq-Iran border area. Shwan Mohammed / AFP
People gather around a levelled building in the mountainous town of Darbandikhan in Iraqi Kurdistan on November 13, 2017, following a 7.3-magnitude quake that hit the Iraq-Iran border area. Shwan Mohammed / AFP

When Reem Al Kubaisi felt the first tremors on Sunday night, the Baghdad resident thought there had been a bombing.

"I was sitting on the sofa watching television and we felt the ground moving. At first I thought it was an explosion because we are so used to that here," she told The National.

"My husband was in the kitchen — he suddenly started screaming, 'Earthquake!' We all ran out into the garden and waited until it stopped. We were terrified," Ms Al Kubaisi said.

However, the 7.3 magnitude earthquake that struck outside the city of Halabja largely spared Iraq from the devastation it wrought across the border in Iran, where more than 400 people were killed and thousands injured.

The Iraqi interior ministry reported fewer than 10 people killed and about 500 injured, all of them in the northern Kurdish region.

The quake is the deadliest in the world this year.

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Read more:

Iran-Iraq quake: More than 400 dead as rescuers hunt for survivors

Aid agencies await the call to assist after Iran-Iraq quak

'No damage' in Dubai after tremors from Iraq earthquake are felt by residents

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But the strong tremors, felt as far away as the UAE, did cause widespread damage and panic, with people rushing out into the streets in Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, Halabja and Baghdad.

Iraqi health authorities said most of the hundreds of people treated after the earthquake were suffering from shock.

"The earthquake woke me up. I ran outside the house in my nightgown. I was really afraid of what was going on, everyone on the streets was panicking," said Yasmin Ahmad, a 32-year-old housewife in Baghdad.

"This is the last thing we need, Iraq has suffered enough."

Most Baghdad residents were able to return to their homes by dawn, although some buildings had suffered extensive damage and the fear of aftershocks kept thousands of others out in the streets and parks.

There were reports of electricity supply being cut off temporarily in some areas of Baghdad as well as in several northern cities.

"The situation in the north is far more critical than the rest of Iraq," said Nermin Azad, 28, a primary school teacher in Erbil, capital of the Kurdish region.

"Erbil and Sulaymaniyah's main hospitals were damaged and had no power. Where are the injured people supposed to go? This is a nightmare," she said.

"The building next to ours collapsed. The walls in our apartment were damaged and most of the windows broke, while the electricity was cut off for a few hours. We didn't know what to do or where to go."

She added: "The shaking felt like it lasted for hours but in reality it lasted for about five minutes."

Residents of Kirkuk, the main city in the oil-rich northern province of the same name, also reported heavy damage to buildings.

"My windows are damaged, there was cold air coming in all night," said Iman Farid, a 42 year-old housewife. "We had no access to our belongings for hours and were just sitting in the street outside fearing the aftershocks of the earthquake."

Iraq's prime minister Haider Al Abadi reassured civilians, saying he was following the situation and had ordered the civil defence and "related institutions" to respond.

"I have instructed civil defence teams and health and aid agencies to do all that they can to provide assistance to our citizens affected by yesterday's earthquake. We will do everything possible to help them," he said.

The government in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region mobilised all medical staff and advised people to follow instructions from their local authorities.

“We urge all medical workers and staff to report to work immediately and help the victims,” it said.

The powerful tremors triggered by the earthquake raised fears for residents in the Kurdish region's mountainous areas, where most homes are built of mud brick.

"These are cheap buildings built for poor people to live in, without any safety, and as a result they collapse and are prone to damage," said Arzu Ismail, 36, a lawyer in Sulaymaniyah, the second-largest city in the Kurdish region.

The area hardest hit by the quake was across the border in the Iranian province of Kermanshah, where most the of the deaths and injuries were reported.

A member of parliament from the town of Sarpol-e-Zahad, which suffered the most destruction, said 15 members of his family had been killed.

Late Monday evening, the head of Iran’s Emergency Medical Services announced that rescue efforts had ceased.

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