Washington (CNSNews.com) - While some Iraqi cities remain dangerous places, progress in reconstruction and services by Iraqis and Americans since the ouster of Saddam Hussein suggests the country is farther on its way to self-government than recent media reports indicate, U.S. officials said Friday.
Christopher Spear, assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Labor, said a majority of Iraqis report they are better off now than they were under the regime of Saddam Hussein, and their cooperation with the American-led coalition proves this.
"When you get out and work with these people - the smiles that you see, the embraces - it just really is encouraging. You're actually contributing and making a difference, but it really rests on their shoulders," Spear said.
Diana Tabler, chief of staff for health affairs with the Department of Defense, said Iraqi medical agencies gradually are upgrading their facilities and soon will regain the medical prominence they once enjoyed in the region.
"Their skills are simply not as current as they would like because they were forbidden from any kind of international travel; they were forbidden from reading and obtaining journals of any recent publication" under Saddam Hussein, Tabler said.
Both officials recently returned from deployments in Baghdad, where they worked with the Coalition Provisional Authority in the reconstruction and stabilization effort in Iraq. They reported their findings to CNSNews.com at a special breakfast briefing.
During a six-week tour of Iraq during the summer, Tabler assisted in the re-establishment of the Iraqi Health Ministry, organizing conferences, ensuring that hospitals have electricity and seeing to it that Iraqi doctors and nurses are paid.
Tabler reported visiting medical libraries where shelves were bare except for photocopies of books or journals that had been smuggled into Iraq from neighboring countries. With the assistance of the United States and non-governmental organizations, Iraqi medical facilities are rapidly being transformed, she said.
"They will rapidly regain their place in that region and, I believe, once again be the referral site and the desired place for medical care in the region," Tabler said.
In the past 12 years, Iraq's health care system deteriorated appallingly, Tabler said. Infant mortality rates more than doubled, from 50 deaths per 1,000 born in 1990 to 107 per 1,000 born in 2000. More than half of the pregnant Iraqi women are anemic, and about one-third deliver babies that are under standard birth weight.
"There are some very significant needs, the most critical being the health of children and young mothers, those who suffered from malnutrition and the lack of medicines so that there are critical health needs throughout the country that need to be addressed and that we're working on," Tabler said.
Of the $87 billion the administration is requesting in supplemental spending for Iraq and Afghanistan, $850 million would be spent on health care in Iraq, according to the Office of Management and Budget.
That $850 million would be in addition to $211 million spent on health care from July through the end of 2003 and $946 million targeted for health in the provisional government's 2004 budget, according to reports.
An additional $100 million for administration and salaries of hospital and clinic employees has been taken from seized assets of Hussein.
Some ministries will be operational soon
As the Coalition Provisional Authority's representative to the Iraqi Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, Spear ran an agency of 3,800 employees that administered about 120 buildings throughout Iraq.
Working from hastily improvised facilities in Baghdad, Spear oversaw the renovation of 16 of 38 damaged buildings and worked with Iraqi officials to make the ministry functional. The rest of the repairs are expected to be completed by the end of the year, he said.
Spear also oversaw the distribution of dollar payments to Iraqi ministry employees and overdue payments to welfare and social security recipients - including the sick, the elderly and disabled - who had not been paid since February.
Some ministries - such as the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, with its 3,800 employees - will become operational sooner than others, Spear said. Other ministries have more than 100,000 employees and suffered far more damage.
"In the next year, you're going to see so much improvement that you'll begin seeing our military and our governmental presence begin to diminish. It'll phase out, and what remains will be the areas that need a little more tending to," Spear said.
With 40 percent of Iraq's population of 23 million people under 14 years of age, "the youth really are the future," Spear said.
"I think as they get older and become more accustomed to the international community, Iraq really will be a contributing force in the Arab region as well as globally," Spear said.
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