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Struggling Iraqis get help from Portland

Northwest Medical Teams and Mercy Corps help meet basic needs

While they aren't finding starving people or stranded refugees, relief teams from two Portland-based international relief agencies working in Iraq are finding people in need of basic medical care, clean water, sewage treatment facilities and other long-term aid.

And workers for both Northwest Medical Teams and Mercy Corps are seeing victims of land mine explosions in hospitals in both southern and northern Iraq, according to dispatches the workers have sent from Iraq.

After weeks of waiting and planning, both agencies sent teams into Iraq last week to assess the needs of Iraqi citizens after the military conflict subsided and to provide much-needed food, water, medicine, supplies and equipment.

Mercy Corps has opened an office in Al Kut in south-central Iraq and will use the office as a base to begin work in two provinces, Wasit and Al Qadisiyah, in the south-central region.

Mercy Corps also has an ongoing relief effort in northern Iraq.

Northwest Medical Teams, basing its operations at its existing clinic in the town of Irbil in northern Iraq, is sending medical workers to villages in the nearby region of Gwer.

'They are seeing a lot of chronic types of ailments, like arthritis and those types of situations,' said Bill Miller, Northwest Medical Teams spokesman in Portland. What Iraqis don't have there, he said, 'are the supplies and beds to provide treatment. And they don't have access to transportation, so going into the villages is a real advantage.'

During the weekend, the agency's volunteer team set up a clinic and made house calls, Miller said. Catlin Goss, a Seattle surgeon, and Jackie Gust, a Portland nurse, examined patients, while Scott Gotter, a Hillsboro paramedic and firefighter, and Lorie Baker, a staff nurse, dispensed medicine.

In addition, Goss worked at a hospital in Irbil, assisting doctors there in tending to land mine victims and other injured patients, Miller said.

On Monday, Northwest Medical Teams sent a second five-person team to northern Iraq, via Turkey, for a monthlong stint. Together, the two teams have taken $80,000 in medical supplies that include antibiotics, syringes, bandages and surgical kits. The agency is arranging to send a larger shipment of supplies.

Volunteers who left for Iraq on Monday are husband-and-wife Portland physicians Tom Hoggard and Mary Burry; Portland paramedic Jan Acebo; Dr. Mike Pendleton of Hood River; and nurse Helene Wood of Watsonville, Calif.

In Al Kut, where there was some military conflict, Mercy Corps staff members have been assessing medical, water and sanitation needs, said spokeswoman Susan Laarman.

Two hospitals there need to replenish medical supplies and medicines, according to staff members Cassandra Nelson of Portland and Margaret Larson of Seattle.

Based on their reports, Mercy Corps has sent supplies to Al Kut, including replacement and spare parts for the city's water purification plant.

Larson, a former NBC News anchor and Seattle television news anchor working for Mercy Corps, said in an e-mail that humanitarian groups in Iraq are faced with a 'daunting list (of tasks) that include humanitarian aid, economic reform, internal reconstructions of bridges and schools and roads, health care, transportation, electricity, water, agriculture, commerce, on and on.'

Al Kut, she said, had no water or power; schools are reopening but are badly in need of supplies.

Workers for Mercy Corps said they feel fairly safe in the regions where they are helping. As it always does when it has staff in tense regions, Mercy Corps has hired a security adviser who will travel around Iraq assessing safety issues.

Miller said the Northwest Medical Teams group also felt secure. Irbil is in a Kurdish-controlled area of Iraq, which was not under the authority of Saddam Hussein.

And though Gwer formerly was under Hussein's control, the villagers have seemed excited at the presence of the medical workers.

Furthermore, Miller said, 'the presence of coalition forces there is reassuring.'