A doctor mingles with patients and staff outside Kirkuk General Hospital in Kirkuk, Iraq. The 400-bed hospital must defer non-life-threatening procedures in order to make their medical supplies last until the international community arrives on their doorstep with aid.

A doctor mingles with patients and staff outside Kirkuk General Hospital in Kirkuk, Iraq. The 400-bed hospital must defer non-life-threatening procedures in order to make their medical supplies last until the international community arrives on their doorstep with aid. (Kevin Dougherty / S&S)

INKAWA, Iraq — It took the little white airplane with baby blue lettering 3 hours and 12 minutes to fly from Amman, Jordan, to an Iraqi airfield outside the city of Irbil.

For some, the short journey was long overdue.

The first wave of non-military-related aircraft began arriving in Iraq last week. A plane carrying communications equipment and six people landed early in the week at the airfield in Inkawa, a suburb of Irbil where many nongovernmental organizations are based in the north. A similar flight was scheduled for Baghdad later in the week.

Once the equipment is up and operating, medical supplies and other badly needed material will be on their way.

“There’s no point in bringing in a pile of [medical] drugs if you can’t coordinate where it needs to go,” said Susan MacGregor, a representative of Air Serv International, a relief agency that specializes in humanitarian airlift.

MacGregor anticipates more opportunities in the coming weeks, providing planes gain permission from the U.S. military’s regional air management control center in Qatar. For Air Serv, it took three weeks and about seven formal requests before it gained clearance.

“We had a leg up because they knew who we were” from Afghanistan, she said.

Some relief workers wish the military had moved a bit quicker to grant the access.

In late April, one well-meaning doctor lobbied the military and others to the point of annoyance. He was asking to have two teenage girls with a rare form of leukemia flown to Germany, where three civilian hospitals were said to have offered their services. Such specialized care is not readily available in Iraq.

One girl later died. The other is still alive because doctors treating her were able to improvise the treatment she needed to extend her life.

“I have the authority to work [humanitarian flights] if it comes through the proper channels,” said Air Force Col. Jim Callahan, the 506th Air Expeditionary Group commander at Kirkuk airfield. “The key is the NGOs need to be really proactive and work with the State Department.”

Callahan scoffed at any suggestion that the military hasn’t moved fast enough.

He and his predecessor, Col. Gregory Cook, who led the effort to open the airfield, winced with worry when they heard about the girls. They made a formal request, but the doctor, unfamiliar with the protocol and working solo, didn’t follow up.

Another health care provider expressed frustration over the lack of coordination on the ground when her team arrived. They would visit a village to make an assessment, only to find another medical NGO already on the scene.

In the last week or so, Kurdish authorities and U.S. military civil affairs personnel have stepped up efforts to eliminate any confusion or redundancy. Each Sunday morning, a coordination meeting is held with representatives of at least 15 different NGOs.

“That has happened,” said Army Maj. Carey Blake of the 404th Civil Affairs Battalion in reference to the initial confusion caused by well-meaning people pouring into a country still technically at war. “We’re really working hard to nip that in the bud.”

People and agencies, she said, are beginning to pull together in a coordinated way, and she promised “a flurry of activity aimed at getting supplies and expertise into Iraq.”

In some cases, civil affairs personnel are taking matters into their own hands.

A hospital in Mosul, for example, was short of oxygen. A team discovered electricity was off in the plant that used to supply the oxygen. They arranged for power to be restored, and now the oxygen shortage has abated.

“Everybody,” Blake said, “is trying to get a grip on what the needs are and where the resources are.”

Doctors in Mosul, according to an after-action report, pleaded with a civil affairs team for better hospital security and medical supplies.

A recent report stated “armed locals have been at the hospital daily, threatening the staff and taking things.” It also noted a critical shortage of bandages, antibiotics, saline drips, painkillers and other basic supplies.

The security situation in Mosul and Kirkuk has steadily improved, military officials said, but other needs remain, especially in the area of health, water and sanitation.

Interestingly, both cities are on the Iraqi side of the so-called “green line,” which once divided Saddam Hussein’s forces from the Kurdish-dominated north. Some of the problems are attributed to the war, though most stem from general neglect.

While problems remain, even in Irbil, people in the north say they wouldn’t change places with the Iraqis in the south for anything. It was the south that bore the brunt of the war and, over the past decade, the misrule of Saddam Hussein.

With respect to health needs in the south, it would take an armada of aircraft to quickly turn things around. That isn’t expected to happen, but MacGregor and Blake believe the humanitarian effort is entering a new phase.

“The fact that one [civilian humanitarian] aircraft got through,” Blake said shortly after the Air Serv plane landed, “is a strong indication that a barrier has been broken.”

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now