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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- At Umm Qasr Clinic, Helpless Patients Wait For Benefits From Allies Victory

  • Charles Recknagel

U.S. and British officials say they are waging two wars in Iraq: One for military victory, the other for the hearts and minds of the population. In Umm Qasr, the only Iraqi town fully under allied control, the military phase is over, but a visit to the local clinic shows how far efforts to win the population still have to go.

Umm Qasr, Iraq; 7 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The clinic in Umm Qasr is a nightmarish scene, even for those working there. If you are a visitor, try to steel yourself at the door.

When this correspondent visited on 5 April, I had barely walked up the steps to the veranda before a desperate father, who hoped I was a doctor, begged for me to help his 11-month-old daughter. As soon as I saw the little girl, there was no question of shrugging off his request and going ahead with doing interviews.

The baby had the skeletal look of an elderly person at the end of her life. Her father and mother, speaking fiercely to be heard over a crowd of other people also trying to catch my attention, said she had gone blind in recent days and this was the last chance to help her.

The parents had brought the girl to the clinic that morning. They were from Zubayr, a town an hour's drive to the north. Despairing of treatment in their own town, which was secured in fighting by the British late last week, they first went to Basra, which was still in Iraqi government hands despite being surrounded by British troops. But in Basra, the overwhelmed hospital staff suggested they come to Umm Qasr instead, even though the port is in foreign hands.

They arrived hopefully, until they saw the Umm Qasr clinic. The clinic, which is named, "The Mother of All Battles Hospital," is overflowing with patients. The helpless staff includes two doctors and 25 nurses, all working 12-hour shifts, who have long ago run out of medicines, including simple antibiotics.

The child dying on the veranda had been diagnosed in her second month of life with a brain hemorrhage. Since then, she had barely eaten. Now, the parents said, they had one hope -- to show the child to British doctors in hopes of a miracle cure.

Wanting to help, my colleagues and I took the ill baby and her parents to the British military camp outside Umm Qasr where some 4,000 POWs are being held. There, a medic promptly came out to see the child, but had disappointing news. There was no doctor in the British camp trained to treat children -- only soldiers injured in combat.

Still, the medic did what he could, bringing packaged vegetable purees the child might be able to eat without vomiting because they met high sanitary standards. He also brought medicine against diarrhea.

As we returned hopelessly to the hospital, the parents seemed resigned to the child's death and as I went on to tour the facility where the child would soon be admitted, I understood why.

Inside the clinic, the doctor was far too busy to talk. Safaa Khalaf, a young bacteriologist, met me instead. He said no medicines had come from Basra, the usual source, since the war began 17 days ago. That compounded the already chronic shortages of the Saddam era. And no aid from the new British authorities or international humanitarian agencies had yet come, though assessment teams from both had visited and promised help soon.

Khalaf also said that over the weekend, looters had broken into the clinic, stealing the motorcycle the doctors relied on for communication with their staff and running errands. Khalaf described the theft this way: "They broke in through the kitchen door. There, there was a motorbike that belongs to the hospital and they took it."

He continued, "Then, they went to a storage area and tried to break down the door and they broke into the nurses' storeroom, where they keep cotton, gauze, and other surgical dressing."

Khalaf said the theft was a heavy blow to the staff's morale because the thieves were undoubtedly fellow townsmen. In the wake of the allied advance, looting has broken out all over southern Iraq, with mobs dismantling factories and breaking into some former government facilities at night.

The British Army has largely stopped the looting around Umm Qasr in recent days. But outside other towns, the highways are crowded with cars towing away all kinds of stolen goods, from machinery to cupboards to wooden beams. If no trailer is available, vehicles simply drag heavy objects like pumps and compressors along the asphalt, sparks flying on the pavement.

The hopelessness at "The Mother of All Battles Clinic" underlines how little has yet changed in the lives of ordinary Iraqis since Umm Qasr changed hands early in the war. Despite U.S. and British officials repeatedly saying that they are determined to win the battle for Iraqi hearts and minds by quickly delivering humanitarian aid, that aid has not arrived at one of its most critical destinations: The town's only health facility.

British military engineers, however, have connected a water pipe from Kuwait to supply the town with clean water and they have restored electricity.

After 12 years of sanctions -- during which more than half-a-million Iraqi children under the age of 5 have died, mostly of malnutrition and diarrheal diseases -- many Iraqis tell journalists they welcome any change that will better their living conditions. But the delays in aid deliveries are now making some people skeptical that the newcomers will assist them as promised.

As the father of the 11-month old girl asked my interpreter, "Have these people come to help us or just to take our oil?"

Answering that quickly is something the allies will have to do if they are to convince many Iraqis that their victory will bring benefits and not simply new hardships.

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