SUSAN DENTZER: Among the casualties of Saddam Hussein's long rein was Iraq's health care system and the health of Iraq's people.
HEALTH CARE WORKER: This is an X-ray of a tuberculosis patient. The lung is completely damaged.
SUSAN DENTZER: Today the country still bears the scars, not just of Saddam's despotism, but also of wars and international sanctions. Iraq's infant mortality rate, at more than one death for every ten live births, is on a par with many poor African nations.
Until recently, most of Iraq's roughly 4 million children under age 5 had never been immunized against common diseases. Last year, Saddam's government spent just over $16 million on health care, a meager 65 cents for each of Iraq's 25 million citizens. And after widespread looting last spring, many of the nation's 240 hospitals and 1,200 primary health clinics were in shambles.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We just had an interesting discussion in the Roosevelt Room about the health needs of Iraq, about the future of the health care system in Iraq.
SUSAN DENTZER: In mid-December President Bush met with the Iraqi now charged with devising a plan to meet those needs. He's Dr. Khodeir Abbas.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The thing that struck me about the meeting was the joy that they expressed about being free. It was a touching meeting. I want to thank you all for coming. Doc, I want to thank you for your good work.
GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL: Dr. Abbas.
SUSAN DENTZER: Born in Basra, Abbas, now age 55, went to Britain after medical school. He spent more than two decades as a breast cancer surgeon in Britain's national health system. Last September, Abbas was appointed interim health minister, one of 25 new cabinet members named to the Iraqi Governing Council. He's now presiding over a vastly expanded budget for health care likely to total $1.8 billion next year. Some $800 million of that is part of the U.S. congressional appropriation for Iraq.
We interviewed Dr. Abbas about the past, present and future of Iraq's health system during his Washington visit in mid-December. Dr. Abbas, welcome. Tell me what the state was of health care in 2002, the last full year of the Saddam Hussein regime.
DR. KHODEIR ABBAS: Many of our health institution -- hospitals, clinics and so forth -- are run by the party machinery, who are the party members. That's what added to the problem, because most of them are ignorant, who are not managers really.
SUSAN DENTZER: Some have said that the level of professionalism of Iraqi doctors and others was essentially frozen around 1970.
DR. KHODEIR ABBAS: Our system deteriorated over the years by the lack of training for medical and nursing staff, because only the elite and those affiliated to the regime, they could go abroad for training. That's why the majority, they've been deprived of this.
SUSAN DENTZER: What was the worst health abuse that you became aware of that occurred under Saddam?
DR. KHODEIR ABBAS: I have met hundreds now Iraqis from the south, from Basra, from Baghdad, almost now you can say around 250. Those Iraqi citizens, they lost their ears because they were cut off; they refused to serve in the army. The other portion, they talked, either joked about Saddam or made remarks about the party, and they lost their tongues. And the other -- for other offenses, they've been disfigured in their foreheads. That's why I have made contacts with our plastic surgeons inside, of course, and the expatriates in the United Kingdom and the United States. We are making files for all these patients, and we are trying to go one by one, examine, assess what reconstructive procedure they need.
SUSAN DENTZER: The mutilations of tongues foreheads, ears, who performed those?
DR. KHODEIR ABBAS: Unfortunately, some of them -- it's known that some doctors who -- it's very -- I feel very ashamed to call them doctors. Any Iraqi who committed crimes, any crime, really, the court has to look into it and then he has to be, you know, judged and sentenced according to the Iraqi laws.
SUSAN DENTZER: How has the health system been rebuilt in the months since the official end of the combat period?
DR. KHODEIR ABBAS: We have done extensive immunization schemes and until now, we have covered more than 70 percent of all Iraq. We began a crisis plan to rehabilitate our health system and that, including rapid assessment to all the facilities of our health system, the hospitals, primary centers, the public central labs.
SUSAN DENTZER: What do you need?
DR. KHODEIR ABBAS: We have to continue the process of re-equipping our hospitals and path labs. We have to continue procuring the medicines needed.
SUSAN DENTZER: There are reports that the health ministry will be the first to be transferred to Iraqi control, correct?
DR. KHODEIR ABBAS: That's correct. It seems that the health ministry in Iraq has performed very well, and we will be the first people to get full independence in our management of the health system in Iraq.
SUSAN DENTZER: Will you be health minister once the transfer of the ministry to Iraqi civilian control is completed?
DR. KHODEIR ABBAS: I'll be more than willing to do so. But even if I go, I'll feel very relieved that at least I have started something and I have done something for my country, and I don't regret it.
SUSAN DENTZER: Dr. Abbas, thank you very much.
DR. KHODEIR ABBAS: My pleasure. Thank you very much.