BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Hundreds of Iraqis were seeking medical help after one of the worst sandstorms in living memory stretched beyond a week, choking throats, clogging eyes and afflicting asthma sufferers in particular.
The weeklong sandstorm forced visiting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to cancel plans to fly to Kurdistan and also interfered with the schedule of his meetings in Baghdad.
It has caused numerous flight delays out of the Iraqi capital and this week delayed Iraq's first international bidding round for its oil fields since the 2003 invasion by a day.
Many Baghdad shops stayed shut on July 5, while police wearing masks directed thin streams of traffic through eerily misty streets. Hospital emergency rooms were packed with people complaining about breathing problems, officials said.
"We are on alert. This is the worst dust storm we have ever had in Iraq," said Doctor Jasib Lateef, operations manager at the Iraqi Health Ministry. "A large number of people are turning up at emergency rooms at hospitals, challenging our resources."
At least 300 people came to Baghdad's Ibn al-Nafis hospital with breathing difficulties on July 5, a hospital official said.
"The weather has been dusty for a week. If healthy people can't breathe, how can the children cope?" Eman um Ali, who had brought her asthma-suffering son for treatment, told Reuters Television.
Iraq has long suffered blinding sandstorms, but several years of drought have aggravated the situation this year. The inadequate flow of water down its once-mighty rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, which are choked by dams in upstream countries like Turkey, has made things worse. Water shortages make the land dry out and become more dusty.
The fine windblown dust goes everywhere, filtering under doors and through windows to coat tables and desks, powder hair, and leave an iron-like taste on tongues.
"There is too little water in the two rivers. On top of that we've had so little rain in the last year. That has turned our home into a desert," said Ayad Bader.
Doctor Thamer al-Ali, the manager of Baghdad's Al-Kindi hospital, said Iraqi medical institutions were used to dealing with health problems caused by sandstorms.
"But the sandstorms used to last for a day, not like now. It's lasted a very long time," Ali said.