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US Administrator Focuses on Getting Electricity to Iraqi Hospitals - 2003-05-26

The U.S. administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, says that while hospitals in Iraq are in extremely bad condition, his first priority is to get electricity flowing to at least enable doctors to perform surgery. Doctors in Baghdad say hospitals here are in critical condition and in severe need of repair and rehabilitation.

Hospitals in Baghdad are in deplorable condition. Hallways are filled with trash. The walls are dirty and, in some cases, stained with blood. Cockroaches are present. Medical equipment is years old. There is a lack of basic medicines. Medical staffs have been depleted by the war because many doctors and nurses fled the country before it started.

Many of the doctors who remained in Baghdad look exhausted and drained by long hours of working in buildings that have no electricity and no air conditioning.

But hospitals here were not destroyed by the war. They are in urgent need of repair and refurbishment because of years of neglect by the former regime of Saddam Hussein.

In Baghdad there are 22 hospitals. But the last new hospital built was in the early 1980s.

Dr. Hassan Aziz, who practices medicine in Baghdad, blames Saddam for the condition of medicine in Iraq. "Before the war the hospitals were in bad condition because of the deficiency of drugs," he said, noting bad conditions that continue to prevail in the health care system.

The average income of doctors in Iraq is $150-200 a year. Their knowledge about advances in medicine is extremely limited because the government controlled access to the internet, there was no satellite availability and medical journals and books had to be smuggled into the country.

Making matters more difficult for doctors was the fact they were not permitted to travel outside of the country. They could not attend medical seminars or visit other hospitals.

Dr. Hassain Hamdan says attempting to leave the country could have resulted in imprisonment. "If I want to travel outside Iraq, to Syria or Jordan, I have to pay [the equivalent of the value of] my house, my car, everything just I go one week, and maybe if I go, I go to the prison because I'm restricted from travel. ... We want to see the new advances about the medicines and the surgery," he said.

The U.S. administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, says he is aware of the condition of the country's hospitals. And while he acknowledges they are all in need of extensive refurbishment, he says providing electricity is his number one concern.

"Our immediate problem is to try to get, in the case of Baghdad anyway, a stead supply of electricity into the hospitals," he said. "There are 22 hospitals in Baghdad. I have instructed that each of these hospitals generators be inspected so that each of the hospitals can be sure of steady electricity in the operating rooms. And where we find that the generators are either ill maintained or simply not working, we will replace them. That is the first and most important thing we are doing for the hospitals in Baghdad."

The doctors who spoke with VOA said electricity is also their first concern. But, they said, the entire medical system throughout Iraq needs an overhaul. One doctor said, going to a hospital in Iraq could actually jeopardize a person's health.

Several doctors said they prayed for the war. In their minds, it was the only way they would ever get a chance to practice the kind of medicine they dreamed of when they decided to become doctors.

One doctor said, Saddam Hussein promised the Iraqi people there would be victory. And, he said, now that the former leader is gone, his promise has come true.