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Four Countries Work for New Iraq Medical System

truth out | Report
Tuesday 06 March 2007

Even as President George Bush’s administration is playing a threatening cat and mouse game with Iran over allegations that Iran is assisting hostilities in Iraq, a group of scientists in all three countries is trying to coordinate efforts to shore up Iraq’s shattered medical system.

Ironically, two of those coordinating the proposed improvements for the Iraqi medical system include a former US soldier involved in the first Persian Gulf War and an Iraqi doctor who used to be Saddam Hussein’s director of environmental medicine.

The network of US, Iranian, Iraqi and Kuwaiti doctors and scientists is working together in an unprecedented preliminary effort to secure new research and theories for professional care for hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians sickened by wartime hazards. Having, over six years’ time, developed lines of communication and cooperation incidental to biomedical research, they say they hope to act as medical consultants to Iraqi universities, medical facilities and government agencies. Collaborations among the University of Connecticut, Purdue and Wayne State universities are expecting to create a nonprofit, non-governmental organization to put plans and operations into action. UCONN in Storrs, Conn., is expected to establish an office and an Internet web site to constantly receive urgent Iraqi medical requests. To get the first two years started, the organizers will solicit $300,000 in donations.

The new four-country medical effort to improve Iraqi medical institutions will be discussed at an International Iraqi Medical Association conference in April in Dubai, Saudi Arabia. (http://www.iimaonline.net). Its chief targets are the improvement of both physical and mental health of the Iraqi people in a wide spectrum of medical concerns. Negotiations during this conference will set up the next stage of the collaboration among the four countries’ medical and scientific representatives, according to its creators.

Inspiration for the effort comes from, among others, David Haines, Ph.D., a research immunologist at University of Connecticut’s Department of Molecular and Cell Biology; and Hikmet Jamil, M.D., Ph.D., formerly director of Iraq ‘s National Program of Environmental Medicine under Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Dr. Jamil is currently a professor of medicine at Wayne State University in Detroit . He leads the International Society of Iraqi Scientists. Its mission “promotes research information, and fosters scientific collaboration among Iraqi scientists and interested organizations.”

Haines and Jamil say the specific goals of their effort are to characterize “the long-term health consequences of war; and to organize professional collaborations that enable development of improved measures for prevention and therapy of chronic illness among war-exposed populations … Particular emphasis will be placed on training, on continuing medical education and on return to Iraq of the country’s expatriate physicians (about one-third have emigrated since 2003).”

The new program will assist academic researchers at US, Iranian and Iraqi institutions in obtaining visas, funds transfer and waivers to embargo regulations. It will review facility reports by administrators of Iraqi clinics and hospitals. The specific needs of each facility will then be presented to selected agencies worldwide as requests for assistance in reconstruction. Priority recipients of these requests will be countries such as the United States and nations neighboring Iraq, since these countries have in-country assets that may be rapidly utilized, says Haines.

In the past five years, organizers of the new medical program have worked with US and Iranian government agencies to study the molecular biological effects of chemical warfare agents, including mustard gas – one factor causing illnesses during the first Gulf War. One major participant, the US Army’s Institute for Chemical Defense, has been instrumental in gaining $300,000 from the National Institutes of Health for an ongoing study of the effects of mustard gas on the lung. This and other studies produced jointly by US and Iranian scientists are aimed for peer-reviewed medical journals.

Today much of the focus of the US and Allied military is on preventing violence in Baghdad, where car and suicide bombs and other attacks have maimed or killed thousands. The Bush administration has blamed the Iranians for supplying parts for some of those ambush devices. Despite the ongoing pressure for medical services, the US State Department reports: “The US government assumes no responsibility for the professional ability or integrity of the persons or firms whose names appear on lists of [Iraqi medical] service providers … [Public] hospitals in Baghdad are not well-equipped at this time and medical care is significantly below Western standards … There are also private hospitals in Baghdad that normally provide better care and service than the public hospitals, but they charge a higher fee … While there are many pharmacies in Baghdad, only a few carry a wide selection of medications.”

The Global Policy Forum reports that similar conditions exist throughout Iraq. “The disintegration of Iraq’s health system has been an aggravating factor [in caring for the war’s wounded], the Forum reports. “The Iraqi medical services, once amongst the finest in the region, have declined to such an extent that they can no longer meet the needs of the population. According to an article in the British Journal of Medicine, ‘more than half’ of those who die in Iraq’s hospitals might have been saved if trained staff were available and hospital conditions were sufficient. Many Iraqi physicians have left the country due to the security crisis, leaving hospitals understaffed or staffed with doctors ‘who do not have the proper experience or skills to manage emergency cases.’ Hospitals and clinics also lack basic medical supplies, including equipments and drugs. The US announced early in the occupation that it would rebuild and re-equip Iraq’s hospitals and primary care clinics. But delays, bad planning and corruption-riddled reconstruction projects have failed to deliver on this promise.”

“Cooperation between the United States and Iran in reconstruction of the Iraqi health sector would produce enormous benefits for all parties,” said Haines of the coordination among medical professionals and others in the four countries. “It will mitigate to some extent the ongoing horror endured by ill or injured Iraqis unable to access even the most basic medical services,” he said. As an Army chemical officer during the first Gulf War, Haines first began to become deeply involved in checking out the adverse health impacts of chemical and biological warfare on US and allied soldiers. Later, after leaving the military, Haines worked as an environmental and medical researcher at Kuwait University and UCONN. And, for the past six years, he worked as a project director on Gulf War illnesses for the Rhode Island Gulf War Commission.

“Nobody participating in this effort has gone into it with naive idealism about bringing peace to the Middle East,” he said. “Quite the contrary, as a fairly hard-bitten group of scientists and military officers, we’re pretty skeptical by nature.” “All of us acknowledge that even if less strident and more enlightened regimes take power in Washington and Tehran,” Haines explained, “the United States and Iran will remain implacable rivals for influence in Southwest Asia. However, if cooperation can be achieved between the two countries in rebuilding the Iraqi health sector, this rivalry might actually be harnessed to a positive end. In the best case, US-Iranian competition for influence in Iraq might be made to shift from focus on superior firepower to capacity for providing a superior [medical system].”

Thomas “Dennie” Williams is a former state and federal court reporter, specializing in investigations for the Hartford Courant. Since the 1970s, he has written extensively about irregularities in the Connecticut Superior Court and Probate Court systems for disciplining both judges and lawyers for misconduct, and about failures of the Pentagon and the VA to assist sick veterans returning from war.