NAJAF, Iraq -- Sheep scampered off the runway and nomads emerged from their tents to watch the first plane in 15 years touch down yesterday on a desert landing strip in Iraq's holiest city.
While children jumped for joy at the rare sight of an airplane, the adults in the crowd were more excited about its precious cargo: $500,000 of donated emergency medical supplies to stock Najaf's sorely depleted hospitals. Across Iraq, doctors struggle to treat patients with a lack of medicine and outdated surgical equipment, but few cities are in such dire need as Najaf.
Two violent uprisings last year by the rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr left the Shi'ite Muslim nerve center in ruins. The main hospital was severely damaged in clashes between Sadr's militia and US and Iraqi forces. At the height of the violence, two smaller hospitals carried out surgeries in reception lobbies. Ten months later, there has been little reconstruction of the hospitals, and doctors said patients still bleed to death for lack of simple equipment.
Najaf's newly elected Governor Asaad Sultan Abu Ghilal said he was frustrated by the central government's healthcare bureaucracy. Important drug bids were mired in paperwork, and doctors' urgent requests for supplies went unanswered, he said. Abu Ghilal took the unusual step in reaching out to a foreign partner: Washington-based SkyLink, which operates flights for nongovernmental organizations in Iraq's deadly skies.
''Our province is in a renaissance period after the major damage and destruction," the governor said. ''We are taking serious steps to prevent such shortages in the future."
SkyLink donated the halfmillion dollar shipment yesterday, and the company's officials said it would follow up with a similar drop-off in the northern Kurdish capital of Erbil. Workers unloaded 90 boxes packed with painkillers, anesthetics, and other emergency-room staples. Najaf officials and residents clapped and eagerly rushed to help move the crates from the Russian-made plane.