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Sandstorms add to Iraq capital's woes

4th straight day of disruptions

BAGHDAD -- Blinding sandstorms swept across the Iraqi capital yesterday for a fourth straight day, disrupting air travel, slowing traffic, and blanketing the city in a gritty film.

A gray dust hung over Baghdad, making it impossible to see across the Tigris River, which divides the city. Central Baghdad's famous Ramadan mosque was enshrouded in sand, leaving it almost invisible from just down the street.

Some Iraqis coped with the storm -- common in this largely desert country -- by tying scarves around their faces to avoid inhaling the dust. Others covered their faces with wet towels. Motorists said they especially felt the storm's fury, with frequent traffic accidents.

''We face difficulties in seeing clearly, making it hard to avoid hitting pedestrians or other cars," said Abu Abdullah, 55, a taxi driver. ''I need to clean my car, especially my windshield, many times a day."

The storms are especially taxing on people like Ammar Jabbar and his brother, who earn their livelihood by peddling soft drinks and cigarettes on the streets.

''I took my brother to the hospital this afternoon because the dust made it difficult for him to breath," said Jabbar, 29, who later returned to work despite the sand and 110-degree temperature.

Since the storms began, Baghdad hospitals have been treating dozens of respiratory cases a day -- including many asthmatics -- doctors said.

In the last two days alone, 126 people who were suffering from asthma attacks were treated at the Ibn Al-Nafees Hospital in Baghdad.

Making matters worse, Baghdad's 6 million people face regular electricity outages and sporadic water shortages, and the quality of water in many neighborhoods is low.

The storms, common during summer months, bring commercial airports to a standstill. Royal Jordanian Airlines has canceled five flights between Baghdad and Amman since Saturday, the airline said.

The outer edges of the storms often appear as solid dust walls that can reach up to 5,000 feet high, making approaches to airports even more dangerous in a flight pattern jammed with military sorties.

The US military declined to comment on how the sandstorms affect flight operations.

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