BAGHDAD, Iraq – The United States picked a new head of Iraq's Health Ministry on Saturday — a Baath Party (search) member whose appointment was so critical that U.S. officials designated the announcement "Public Notice No. 1."
The appointment of optometrist Ali Shnan al-Janabi (search) came as the Americans started paying Health Ministry workers $20 to return to work, and as U.N. officials warned of humanitarian disaster if quick action is not taken to restore vital services.
"Basic services have collapsed or are at the risk of collapsing if we don't bring them back quickly," said Ramiro Lopes da Silva, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Iraq.
UNICEF (search) rushed rehydration salts, milk and protein biscuits to poor Iraqi neighborhoods Saturday to help children sickened after drinking tainted water from pipes shattered in the fighting.
The United Nations also said Saturday that employees from several U.N. agencies, including the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the World Food Program, were arriving in Iraq's second-largest city Basra this weekend to establish a "permanent humanitarian presence."
The workers will help coordinate emergency relief efforts with non-governmental organizations and local authorities in Basra, which needs help restoring health, sanitation, water, food and education services, as well as clearing unexploded ammunition, according to a statement from the U.N. spokesman in New York.
The United Nations, which also has returned to the northern city of Irbil and intends to send workers to other northern cities soon, now has about 100 international staff located in Iraq on a permanent basis.
The U.S. civil administration said that by making al-Janabi's appointment the subject of its first public notice since taking charge, it was indicating that health issues are a high priority.
Even as the manhunt goes on for some Baath Party officials, U.S. officials realize that others are the only ones with the expertise to help run the country. And so they turn to men like al-Janabi, who was the third-ranking official in the ministry under Saddam Hussein.
Al-Janabi "is not associated with criminal activities or human rights abuses or weapons of mass destruction. So we are happy to work with him," said Steven Browning, the administration's representative to the ministry.
Asked whether he minded working with Americans, al-Janabi said: "We have no other choice. ... We are giving service to our society."
U.S. authorities hope that a similar sense of duty — and a few dollars — will bring more workers back to the Health Ministry, a sprawling building in central Baghdad with smashed windows and hallways littered with charred papers.
"I ask all the Ministry of Health employees to come back to work ... because your country needs you," said Browning.
U.S. soldiers opened a gray footlocker filled with $120,000 in large, plastic-encased bricks of ones, fives and 10s to pay health care workers, most of whom have received no salaries for 1 months.
The $20 that employees were paid is roughly a month's salary for an average ministry employee.
"Thank God," Turkiye Mahmoud said as she clutched 20 dollar bills in her hands, kissed them and pressed them to her forehead. "I have 10 children. We can now buy food, flour and bread."
Others were disappointed. Hashem Ali Al-Hashemi, a driver for 37 years at the ministry, said the $20 was far from enough for him, his wife and 16 children. Al-Hashemi said he needs to buy eight new school uniforms for his children, which will cost 15,000 dinar each — a total of about $70.
"This is only enough for two kids," he complained.
Many records were destroyed when the ministry was looted, and Browning said records for only 6,000 employees have been found so far. He said the ministry's 22,000 other employees would be paid later.
The returning health workers have an enormous challenge in store.
Many Iraqi hospitals are poorly supplied and some have been looted, leading to critical shortages of medicine in many areas. Electricity is sporadic, and the organization Save the Children estimates that only 60 percent of Iraqis have access to clean drinking water.
Aid — medical, food and other varieties — has only begun to trickle back into Iraq since major combat ended. The United Nations evacuated its international staff from Baghdad on March 18, two days before the war started. On Thursday, da Silva and some 20 other staffers returned.
The first major postwar aid shipment, a U.N. convoy of flour-laden trucks, arrived in Baghdad on April 19.
The organization brought anesthesia to Iraq last week after the situation became so dire that Iraqi doctors were forced to perform amputations without it, said Carel de Rooy, UNICEF representative for Iraq.
World Food Program representatives met Saturday with old Trade Ministry officials to plan new distributions of food aid.