Iraq's new government says the country's health care system is in critical condition. U.S. officials have spent millions of dollars to help repair the system. But Iraqi officials say years of economic sanctions, wars and mismanagement under Saddam Hussein have led to a decline in the overall health of Iraqis. Shortages of drugs and medical personnel, as well as corruption have also taken a toll on the health care system. VOA's Greg LaMotte in Baghdad spoke with Iraq's new health minister about the problems and hopes for improvement.

Iraqi Health Minister Dr. Alaa Din Alwan says the country's health care system is in a state of near collapse.

He says health indicators in the country have worsened in recent years.

"We had an infant mortality rate, for example, in the 1980s around 45 per 1,000 live births," he explained. "This has risen considerably over the following 10-15 years. It has almost tripled actually in a 15-year period from 1988-2003. The same applies to life expectancy. Life expectancy at birth was around 66 years in the 1980s. This has declined to 58 or 59 last year. The same applies to the mortality rate among children, also to maternal mortality. Health care facilities have deteriorated. The condition of health care has also worsened drastically."

Dr. Alwan says the economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations in 1990, following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, caused the greatest amount of damage to Iraq's health care system. Hospitals fell into disrepair. Medical supplies ran short. The country was denied modern medical technologies. And, no new medical facilities have been built since 1990.

But there are other problems, too. It is common to walk into a hospital in Baghdad, for instance, and see blood stained walls and trash and filth littering the floors. There are few doctors and nurses. Surgeries can easily be seen being performed in rooms with open or broken windows. And, in a growing number of cases, there is not enough medicine to adequately treat the patients.

"The current situation suffers from a considerable shortage of medicine. We are trying to address this issue," he said. "We are developing a national drug policy. But, at the same time, we are taking steps to improve the availability of medicines and we're focusing, initially, on the essential drugs for the management of chronic conditions."

Dr. Alwan says corruption is a contributing factor.

"We have another problem which makes the situation even worse, and there is corruption that, unfortunately, affects many government institutions, including health institutions in Iraq," he said. "With the corruption, we have a problem with shortages of medicine getting worse."

Dr. Alwan says, when the United Nations allowed Iraq to sell oil for food and medicine, much of the medicine never made its way to hospitals. Instead, he says, it was sold for profit by the Saddam Hussein government.

But as bleak as the health minister paints the current state of affairs within Iraq's health care system, he remains optimistic the situation will gradually begin to improve. He noted that for almost 13 years, Iraq was economically isolated from the rest of the world. Now that Iraq is re-entering the global community, he says, he believes health care in Iraq stands an excellent chance for a full recovery.