Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Hospital in Najaf remains closed

Report, IRIN, 15 July 2004

NAJAF -- Sadr Teaching Hospital in the southern city of Najaf has been closed since early April, a victim of the fighting between Shi'ite cleric Moqtada Sadr's Mehdi militia and US-led Coalition forces, according to local people.

During a visit to the area, IRIN managed to look inside the hospital to find a magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, diagnostic machine sitting damaged in one wing, apparently too big for looters to steal. In the room next door, wires and boxes of test kits lay tangled and strewn about.

Outside, hundreds of rubbish bags filled with boxes of prescription medicines are piled waist-deep on the asphalt. In one bag are hundreds of pink antibiotic tablets from Jordan. In another are vials of what look like vaccination ampoules from Germany.

While many of the medicines seem to be undamaged, hospital guards say the bags were taken out of the hospital after raw sewage flooded a basement storage area and made the drugs unusable.

"Most of the equipment was looted after the US troops left," Fadhel Karim, 26, told IRIN as he stood outside the hospital waiting for the bus. "I feel very sad about it. Any good citizen will refuse to allow this, since this hospital serves patients from all of southern Iraq [an estimated 6 million people]."

"We are very concerned about access to health care in the southern region as 16 operating theatres have been closed in this hospital. It was a highly equipped hospital and this is having a devastating effect," Dr Naeema Al-Gasseer, head of the World Health Organization (WHO) Iraq office, told IRIN in the Jordanian capital, Amman. She added that there was also the threat of morbidity rates increasing due to a lack of access to emergency facilities. "People are having to travel long distances to be treated and sometimes they cannot get help in time," she stressed.

While there is disagreement over why the hospital has been closed for so long, US troops, a Red Cross representative, hospital guards and administrators agree on at least one point about the closure. The Mehdi militia forces took over the hospital in April, using its upper floors to launch attacks against US-led troops and hold the main road.

Following fighting on 9 April, US forces and others took over the hospital and locked doctors into patients' rooms, according to Mohammed Juad, 27, a medical student on the second year of his two-year programme. Six Mehdi militia fighters died that day at the hospital, he said. The next morning, when they were let out, the doctors and patients were told to leave, Juad said. "They treated us like prisoners because they thought we were with Sadr, but we were not," Juad told IRIN. "After we left, we couldn't go back for three months."

Another public hospital took in patients, as did two private clinics, Juad said. But closing the 600-bed teaching hospital put a strain on health care services in the region, he added, gesturing around the room at the smaller hospital where he now works. A spokesman for US troops in Najaf agreed that the hospital was still closed, saying workers were trying to get it ready in time for the new school year in September.

But there, agreement ends.

Hospital guards said US and El Salvadoran troops wrecked the medical facility and stole all of the equipment when they took it over. Major Rick Heyward, a US military spokesman who works for a unit attached to the 1st Infantry Division, told IRIN that US troops, or any other Coalition troops for that matter, had no reason to steal from the Iraqis.

"I don't have the exact details of what happened, but people realise the importance of our mission here," Heyward told IRIN. "We wouldn't jeopardise that by taking medical equipment."

The US military recently gave US $10,000 worth of medical supplies to the hospital that were donated from hospitals in the United States, said Capt Chip Payne, who works in the same unit as Heyward. Those supplies are currently in a warehouse for safe-keeping until the hospital re-opens.

Ahmed Khalid al-Rawi, a spokesman for the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) in Iraq, said that the hospital's air-conditioning units, some beds and medical equipment were all taken in looting immediately after troops left. ICRC previously supplied some equipment to the hospital, he said.

Guards showed a reporter piles of broken glass, papers strewn about and tree stumps they said were all that was left of the former leafy entrance area following fighting. Troops pulled out the ceiling tiles, looking for weapons, Nabeel Ohahad, 32, a security guard, told IRIN, pointing up at the destroyed ceiling and noting a bullet hole in a glass door.

Heyward said US Marines and troops from El Salvador and Spain took the hospital back from the Mehdi Army, but left around 1 July, handing it over to the guards. "When the hospital was occupied by US troops, equipment was damaged and machines were stolen," said Saad Hadi, 30, a hospital guard who started his job 15 days ago. "Now, we're cleaning it up with many workers."

Money from the US Congress will pay for the hospital's long-term clean-up and renovation, said Capt Lance O'Bryan, information officer with the same unit as Heyward and Payne.

The US Project Management Office, now called the Projects and Contracts Office, has allocated $27 million to repair the hospital, O'Bryan said. The money will go to the hospital through Iraq's Ministry of Health, he explained.

Iraq's new health minister, Ala'adin Alwan, said the ministry was doing an assessment at the hospital to decide how to spend the money. The health directorate took over the hospital when troops moved out at the beginning of July, Alwan said. "It's closed now because it was involved in the fighting, but you can go to another hospital in Najaf," he told IRIN.

US-led troops, including soldiers from El Salvador and Honduras in southern Iraq, are now in an uneasy stand-off with the Mehdi militia, Heyward said. The Shi'ite forces started fighting after US officials closed Sadr's office in Baghdad, started to arrest his followers and announced they would kill or capture him in connection with the assassination of rival religious leader Sheikh Abdul Majid al-Khoe.



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