Sadrists' Grip On Health Care Takes Toll

Sadrists' Grip On Health Care Takes Toll
March 27th, 2008  
Team Infidel

Topic: Sadrists' Grip On Health Care Takes Toll

Sadrists' Grip On Health Care Takes Toll
USA Today
March 27, 2008
Pg. 8
Fear infects Iraq hospitals despite gains in security
By Charles Levinson, USA Today
BAGHDAD A 6-foot-wide picture hanging at the front gate of Iraq's Health Ministry removes any doubts about who runs the place.
The photo is of the father and uncle of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, both of whom were religious leaders killed by Saddam Hussein's regime. Employees of the ministry, many of whom are loyalists to al-Sadr, pass their images every day as they go to work.
Al-Sadr's ironclad control over Iraq's health system and other key ministries has come under renewed scrutiny following recent clashes between his Mahdi Army militia and the Iraqi army.
Under the influence of the militia and other Sadrists, Iraq's hospitals and clinics have been at the center of some of the country's worst sectarian violence, although recent improvements in security nationwide have made Iraqis less afraid to seek medical attention.
Doctors such as Haydar al-Kawaz, the director of the emergency room at Baghdad's Yarmouk Hospital, say that security has slowly improved even though sectarian divisions have not disappeared.
"If you come calm and you're not shouting political slogans, it will be safe," al-Kawaz said. "But if you say, 'I am from this group or that group,' it is not safe still."
The Health Ministry has been under al-Sadr's control since 2005, when his political party gained more seats than any other group. His decision to staff the Health Ministry with his loyalists provided al-Sadr with a critical boost to his reputation among his followers, said Agron Ferati, the Iraq director for the International Medical Corps, a non-profit group.
"It was a brilliant move," Ferati said. "Provide medicines, doctors and services, and you become a hero in your society."
During the height of Iraq's sectarian violence in 2006, many Sunni patients avoided hospitals they knew were Shiite-controlled, fearing they'd be targeted by al-Sadr's militia. Militia members frequently used ambulances to ferry around weapons instead of patients.
Al-Sadr's control over Kimadia, the state-run company that is responsible for importing and distributing drugs and supplies to Iraq's hospitals, also poses problems, Ferati said.
"Kimadia has a stranglehold on the whole medical sector, and that is a source of power through which Sadr can control the health sector and threaten the country," Ferati said. "If they decide to stop working, then you cut off all the drugs into Iraq."
The cleric's followers have reacted harshly when their power was threatened. When one hospital challenged Kimadia's monopoly by importing drugs on its own, someone planted a rumor that the drugs were infected with HIV, sending panic through the community, said Hilal Shawki, a cardiologist.
The turmoil in the health sector, plus an open campaign by militants to target trained professionals, has severely damaged Iraq's ability to care for its sick. Since 2003, 2,200 doctors and nurses have been killed, and 250 more have been kidnapped, according to a report published last week by the International Red Cross. Of the 34,000 doctors registered in 1990, at least 20,000 have left the country.
That has left fewer doctors to tend to more patients, and Yarmouk Hospital treated an astounding 45,000 patients last year, said al-Kawaz, the emergency room director. It's now 90% safe to come to Yarmouk Hospital, al-Kawaz said. Of course, that means it's also 10% unsafe, he acknowledged.
"I am wearing jeans and a T-shirt, which means I am hiding from something," the unshaven 37-year-old said. "I dress like an assistant so I will not stand out. Being a doctor here threatens our lives."

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