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Children Pay Cost of Iraq's Chaos

"Believe me, we thought a magic thing would happen" with the fall of Hussein and the start of the U.S.-led occupation, said an administrator at Baghdad's Central Teaching Hospital for Pediatrics. "So we're surprised that nothing has been done. And people talk now about how the days of Saddam were very nice," the official said.

The administrator, who would not give his full name for publication, cited security concerns faced by Iraqi doctors, who are widely perceived as rich and well-connected and thus easy targets for thieves, extortionists and the merely envious or vengeful. So many have been assassinated, he said, that the Health Ministry recently mailed out offers to expedite weapon permits for doctors.


Suad Ahmed's 4-month-old granddaughter, Hiba, has chronic diarrhea, a common ailment among Iraqi children under 5. (Karl Vick -- The Washington Post)

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Violence has also driven away international aid agencies that brought expertise to Iraq following the U.S. invasion.

Since a truck bombing at the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad killed more than 20 people last year, U.N. programs for Iraq have operated from neighboring Jordan. Doctors Without Borders, a group known for its high tolerance for risk and one of several that helped revive Iraq's Health Ministry in the weeks after the invasion, evacuated this fall.

CARE International closed down in October after the director of its large Iraq operation, Margaret Hassan, was kidnapped. She is now presumed to be dead. The huge Atlanta-based charity had remained active in Iraq through three wars, providing hospitals with supplies and sponsoring scores of projects to offer Iraqis clean drinking water.

By one count, 60 percent of rural residents and 20 percent of urban dwellers have access only to contaminated water. The country's sewer systems are in disarray.

"Even myself, I suffer from the quality of water," said Zina Yahya, 22, a nurse in a Baghdad maternity hospital. "If you put it in a glass, you can see it's turbid. I've heard of typhoid cases."

The nutrition surveys indicated that conditions are worst in Iraq's largely poor, overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim south, an area alternately subject to neglect and persecution during Hussein's rule. But doctors say malnutrition occurs wherever water is dirty, parents are poor and mothers have not been taught how to avoid disease.

"I don't eat well," said Yusra Jabbar, 20, clutching her swollen abdomen in a fly-specked ward of Baghdad's maternity hospital. Her mother said the water in their part of Sadr City, a Shiite slum on the capital's east side, is often contaminated. Her brother contracted jaundice.

"They tell me I have anemia," Jabbar said. Doctors said almost all the pregnant women in the hospital do.

"This is not surprising because since the war, there is lots of unemployment," Yahya said. "And without work, they don't have the money to obtain proper food.''

Iraqis say such conditions carry political implications. Baghdad residents often point out to reporters that after the 1991 Persian Gulf War left much of the capital a shambles, Hussein's government restored electricity and kerosene supplies in two months.

"Yes, there is a price for every war," said the official at the teaching hospital. "Yes, there are victims. But after that?

"Oh God, help us build Iraq again. For our children, not for us. For our kids," the official said.


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