Grief and anger gripped the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah after a fire swept through a temporary Covid isolation unit, killing 64 people and injuring dozens more.

The devastating blaze yesterday evening in the city's Al-Hussein Hospital, which medics said was fuelled by oxygen canisters exploding, was the second such tragedy in Iraq in three months.

"64 (bodies) were retrieved and 39 identified and handed over to their families," a source at the provincial forensic science department told AFP.

"Medical teams and relatives of victims are finding it difficult to identify the rest of the corpses," the source said, adding that the toll could rise as more bodies were feared buried under the rubble.

The blaze also injured 100 people.

An official tally listed in local media said 39 of the dead identified were women.

"We heard their screams but we couldn't help them much," activist Hisham al-Sumeri who aided in the relief effort told AFP of the victims.

He accused the local authorities of negligence.

As the first funerals were held, angry protesters vented their anger at provincial authorities they blame for the deaths, an AFP correspondent said.

In Al-Dawaya, east of Nasiriyah, a joint funeral was held for six members of one family who died in the inferno.

In Al-Nasr, north of the city, mourners laid to rest two brothers and two sisters who died in the flames.

Abbas Agil, a pensioner who attended the Al-Nasr funeral, said grieving mourners raged at provincial officials they accuse of corruption and neglect.

Hundreds of young protesters shut down private hospitals in Nasiriyah to pressure the authorities to open the doors of a newly built public hospital in the southern city.

Last month, Prime Minister Mustafa Khademi inaugurated the brand new hospital, constructed by a Turkish firm. But the hospital and its more than 400 beds have yet to open to patients.

He declared three days of national mourning for the "martyrs" of Nasiriyah.

In late 2019, at the height of a countrywide wave of anti-government protests, Nasiriyah was referred to as the heart of the uprising.

"The state must take the necessary measures... to confront the corrupt," one young protester told AFP.

He said those responsible must be held "accountable... in transparent investigations that show people that it (the state) is serious about putting an end to these tragedies".

In a tweet, President Barham Salih blamed the "catastrophe" at Al-Hussein Hospital on "persistent corruption and mismanagement that undervalues the lives of Iraqis".

Mr Salih recalled an April fire at a Baghdad Covid-19 hospital which killed 82 people and injured 110. It too was sparked by the explosion of badly stored oxygen cylinders.

The April fire triggered widespread anger, resulting in the suspension and subsequent resignation of then health minister Hassan al-Tamimi.

At the Vatican, Pope Francis issued a statement saying he was "deeply saddened" by Monday's tragedy.

And in Iraq's neighbour Iran, the foreign ministry spokesman expressed condolences and offered humanitarian and medical help.

Between January and March alone, Iraq's interior ministry recorded 7,000 fires in the country.

Yesterday, a minor fire at the health ministry's Baghdad headquarters was quickly contained without causing any casualties.

Iraq - whose oil-dependent economy is still recovering from decades of war and international sanctions - has recorded more than 1.4 million coronavirus cases and more than 17,000 deaths.

Much of its health infrastructure is dilapidated, and investment in public services has been hamstrung by endemic corruption.