International medical team to provide aid to pilgrams targeted by extremists.

A Kiwi doctor is braving the threat of suicide bombers and targeting by extremists to join a charity medical mission to his native Iraq.

Dr Adnan Ali flies out of Auckland today with more than 50kg of donated medical equipment and supplies to help care for tens of thousands of pilgrims in one of the planet's largest gatherings.

Each year as many as 20 million-plus travel from around the world to walk in procession to the shrine of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson Hussein ibn Ali in the city of Karbala to commemorate his death in 680.

The pilgrims face dangers from extremists. In 2015, Isis reportedly planted bombs inside dolls it planned to scatter on the road to Karbala. The plot was foiled by security forces. Last year, it was reported 77 people, many of them pilgrims on their way home from Karbala, were killed in a truck bomb attack; Isis claimed responsibility.


"We are expecting suicide bombers to blow themselves [up] to [try to] kill people who are coming to this pilgrimage," Ali said. "These people unfortunately are targeted by... Isis."

Ali, who has worked in plastic surgery in Auckland since 1999 and who was in charge of Middlemore Hospital's Emergency Centre Local Anaesthetic Operative Procedure unit for a couple of years, will join an international team of 120 doctors and health professionals who will run two camps in Karbala for a fortnight, then a camp in the city of Najaf for a week.

Karbala, about 100km southwest of Baghdad, with an estimated population of around 700,000, hosts millions during the pilgrimage.

The three medical camps, running 24/7, will be staffed by volunteers from Imamia Medics International (IMI) - a global NGO comprising health professionals from across the world who provide humanitarian relief and are dedicated to advocacy and the advancement of health and education.

The volunteers, who help fund their missions, will provide care from general practice medicine, to treating accidents and emergencies, to specialist surgery during the three-week mission. Last year, an IMI team of 108 doctors and health professionals treated 148,500 patients in Karbala and Najaf.

Ali, 61, the IMI coordinator in New Zealand, has travelled to Iraq on several medical missions. He is aware of the dangers he faces. "You hear bombs here and there, and cars blown up."

In 2014, a bomb-packed car parked in a Baghdad street next to a pharmacy blew up about 350 metres from him, knocking him to the ground.

Picking himself up from the dust, he then tended to the wounded - all the while aware that "sometimes you get double bombs".


A car will be blown up, then when people gather, a suicide bomber "will come out and blow himself [up]", he said.

His wife, Dr Sanaa Salman, who has a postgraduate diploma in obstetrics and medical gynaecology from Auckland University and is also an IMI member, was in Baghdad earlier this year for an international medical exhibition and conference. A car bomb went off outside a hotel she was at for the closing ceremony, killing several security staff, Ali said.

The couple have four children, with three fully grown and 12-year-old son Hassan, so "we don't go together" on potentially dangerous missions - travelling alternately instead.

Ali, who will follow a five-strong group of Kiwi volunteer support workers to Karbala, is also conscious of the fact that a group of 120 international health professionals could be a kidnapping target for extremists.

Dr Adnan Ali is aware of the dangers he faces in Iraq. Photo / AP
Dr Adnan Ali is aware of the dangers he faces in Iraq. Photo / AP

Travel between cities was by buses, with heavily armed vehicles in front and behind the convoys, he said. "They secure the street for us if we move."

While Ali knows "there is risk", he was not a stranger to life in a conflict zone. When he finished medical school in Iraq, he had to do four years of compulsory military service during the Iran-Iraq war, he said.

"I was a lieutenant medical officer in a medical field unit. So I witnessed so many destructive things that happened during the war."

Ali worked in plastic and reconstructive surgery over 10 years in Iraq. But he said he was "about to cry" when he thought of the young victims of extremist atrocities he had seen there more recently. "These victims are children - disfigured."

Ali left Iraq "overnight" in 1995, fleeing the regime of Saddam Hussein.

He and his wife had been secretly winding up their medical clinics in readiness to depart the country. As he was still considered to be in the army reserve, he was not allowed to leave, Ali said.

But two weeks before they planned to go, he received a tip-off that intelligence agents had said "Adnan will be captured tonight".

"I [had] to leave that night."

A keen artist (his works have been shown in NZ and at the Iraqi Museum of Modern Art), he took some paintings and headed for the Jordanian border, leaving his possessions behind. "It was the worst night in my life."

Posing as an artist travelling to Jordan to hold an exhibition, he made it into the country with Sanaa, and their children - daughter Zahra, then 6; son Mustafa, 4; and daughter Shayma, 1.

They emigrated to New Zealand a year later, after another Iraqi doctor couple who had moved here told them it was "a lovely place for a family to grow up".