The United States appointed a new head of Iraq’s Health Ministry on Saturday and gave a first batch of its employees 20 dollars each to return to work as UN officials warned of humanitarian disaster if quick action is not taken to restore vital services.
The UN children’s fund, Unicef, rushed rehydration salts, milk and protein biscuits to poor Iraqi districts to help youngsters who have become ill after drinking tainted water from pipes shattered in the fighting.
“Basic services have collapsed or are at the risk of collapsing if we don’t bring them back quickly,” said Ramiro Lopes da Silva, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq. The UN evacuated its international staff from Baghdad on March 18, two days before the war started. On Thursday, da Silva and some 20 other staffers returned.
Many Iraqi hospitals are poorly supplied and some have been looted, leading to critical shortages of medicine in many areas. The organisation Save the Children estimates that only 60% of Iraqis have access to clean drinking water. Electricity is sporadic, and cases of stomach illnesses are skyrocketing, threatening children in particular.
“We have not gone over the hump yet,” da Silva warned. ”The conditions for the potential development of a humanitarian disaster still exist.”
Aid – medical, food and other varieties – has only begun to trickle back into Iraq in the weeks since major combat ended. The first major post-war aid shipment, a UN convoy of flour-laden trucks, arrived in Baghdad on April 19.
But agencies are trying to increase shipments. The UN World Food Programme representatives met Saturday with old Trade Ministry officials to plan distributions of food aid.
Unicef brought anaesthesia to Iraq last week after the situation became so dire that Iraqi doctors were forced to perform amputations without anaesthesia, said Carel de Rooy, the Unicef representative for Iraq.
At Iraq’s Health Ministry, a sprawling building in central Baghdad with smashed windows and charred papers littering the hallways, the US Civil Administration named Ali Shnan al-Janabi to run things.
“I ask all the Ministry of Health employees to come back to work ... because your country needs you,” said Steven Browning, the administration’s representative to the ministry.
The notice naming al-Janabi to his post was “Public Notice No. 1” from the Civil Administration.
“We clearly put health care as a high priority,” Browning said.
A few minutes after Browning spoke, US soldiers opened a grey footlocker filled with 120,000 dollars in large, plastic-encased bricks of ones, fives and 10s to pay health-care workers, most of whom have received no salaries for 1 1/2 months.
Still, the ministry that will be at the nexus of efforts to keep Iraqis healthy and avert major humanitarian problems under US occupation is only beginning to emerge from its chaos.
Many records were destroyed when the ministry was looted, and Browning said records for only 6,000 employees have been found so far. He said the ministry’s 22,000 other employees would be paid later.
The 20 dollars that employees were paid is roughly a month’s salary for an average ministry employee.
“Thank God,” Turkiye Mahmoud said as she clutched 20 one-dollar bills in her hands, kissed them and pressed them to her forehead. “I have 10 children. We can now buy food, flour and bread.”
Other employees, though, were disappointed.
Hashem Ali Al-Hashemi, a driver for the past 37 years at the ministry, said the 20 dollars was far from enough for him, his wife and 16 children. With school starting, al-Hashemi said he needs to buy eight new uniforms for his children who are school age, which will cost 15,000 dinar (almost 9 dollars) each.
“Twenty dollars in not enough,” Al-Hashemi said. “This is only enough for two kids.”
Al-Janabi is an optometrist and was No. 3 in the Health Ministry under Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Although he was a member of Saddam’s Baath Party – like almost all top officials in Iraq at the time – al-Janabi was a “Baath Party member who is not associated with criminal activities or human rights abuses or weapons of mass destruction,” Browning said. “So we are happy to work with him.”
Asked whether he minded working with Americans, al-Janabi said: “We have no other choice.”
“The most important thing is that ... we are giving service to our society,” he said.