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Iraq Blog I

Sleeping at Saddam’s Palace
Written October 17, 2008

In the spring of this year I was visited by Dr. Salih Al-Hasnawi, the Iraqi Minister of Health and the Iraqi Ambassador to the United States, Samir Sumaidaie. They came with a specific request; help in providing re-training for doctors in Iraq.

Thirty years ago, Iraq was considered a center of health care excellence within the Middle East. Deliberate under-funding by Saddam Hussein and five years of focused kidnappings of doctors, bombings of clinics and ruthless killings of health workers by insurgents has resulted in thousands of doctors leaving the country. Those who stayed have fallen behind, deprived of an exposure to professional enhancement or even contact with others within their area of specialty.

The Minister’s request was that we organize opportunities for Iraqi doctors to shadow American doctors who practice in their specialty for a period of a few weeks. Doing so, he reasoned was the most efficient way to update them on the current practice of medicine. It would also establish relationships, allowing Iraqi practitioners to continue contact after they return home.

I found the Minister’s request compelling, and committed to explore the possibilities. The idea seemed feasible, especially because the Minister committed to pay all the costs of the traveling physicians.

Following our meeting, I did two things to test-drive the project’s viability. I organized a working group at HHS and assigned them to study the barriers to such an effort. In addition, as I traveled around the United States over the next couple of weeks awarding Chartered Value Exchange charters, I asked to meet with leaders of medical associations to explore their enthusiasm for undertaking such a project.

I was gratified to find American medical communities energized by the thought. Many had suggestions and helped flesh out the challenges we would need to overcome to make it work.

Ultimately, I formed an HHS team, called the Minister of Health and committed we would generate a pilot group before the end of the year. I hoped, in executing the plan, we could get the program organized and operating before I vacated the Office of Secretary. Looking back, I have to admit, I underestimated the amount of bureaucratic challenges, diplomatic obstacles and legal entanglements necessary to do what seemed like a fairly simple task.

In addition to organizing the effort, I committed to visit Iraq myself to show U.S. support for the Ministry of Health. This was important to the Minister, because he was struggling to convince the thousands of Iraqi doctors who had fled the country to return. Having the Secretary of Health from the United States visit and announce such an effort would add needed credibility to his message.

On October 17, 2008, I flew from Washington D.C. to Amman, Jordan, stayed the night, and then took an Air Force C-130 from Amman to Baghdad. While Iraq is a safer place than it was six months ago, the heavy, armored vests and steel helmets we wore everywhere we went served as a reminder of the fact we were flying into a war zone.

Secretary Leavitt and Air Force crew on flight to Iraq

Once inside the Green Zone, we were taken to our billets for the two nights I spent there. I slept in a building just off the swimming pool at one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. The palace is now used as offices for various components of our government’s operation there. It is teeming with people, all walking with a notable briskness. The exterior is surrounded by a maze of concrete “t-walls,” used to protect people from explosions. The compound is dotted with duck-and-cover shelters that serve as protection from mortars lobbed across the walls from outside.

Despite the gold door knobs and marble floors, the sleeping accommodations were spartan and basic. My room had two, inexpensive twin beds, a small desk and a 16-inch television. We ate our meals with the soldiers and contractors.

Sleeping accommodations in Saddam Hussein’s palace

In many ways, the current use camouflages the remarkable opulence of the gold trim, ornate carvings and egotistical murals and self-tributes in the massive rooms of the palace. One could not walk the halls without thinking of the evil conducted there in years past.

The pool was big, beautiful and well-used by soldiers looking for a place to relax and exercise. It was surrounded by traditional amenities soldiers use: A ping-pong table, billiards and a popcorn machine. None of it covered up the soberness of the task, or the time.


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I'm curious....Given your effort to train Iraqi physicians, where do we stand on a plan to do this? How do physicians participate?

Posted by: Philip Dugger | October 29, 2008 at 03:04 PM

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