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Baghdad is not torn by civil strife and, to the eye, looks much better than one would expect, according to a former Salt Lake woman who visited the Iraqi capital March 13-16.

But in reality, conditions are much worse than they appear, she says.Salt Lake native Rebecca Salti told the Deseret News Friday, during a telephone interview from her Amman, Jordan, home that she fears for the 17 million residents of Iraq as the war-torn nation tries to rebuild.

Salti, who is field office director of Save the Children in Jordan, visited Baghdad with representatives of non-governmental humanitarian groups. They were the first non-U.N., non-medical private group allowed into the country.

Getting to Baghdad required a grueling 13-hour drive through the desert from Amman, and the group had to carry its own supplies, including gasoline. Once inside the city, they had complete freedom of movement, she said.

But the city is virtually paralyzed.

"Imagine trying to live in a city of 4 million people where nothing works. There are no phones and hardly any electricity, water or gasoline - and no sewer system," she said.

Having visited Baghdad just a year ago, Salti said she anticipated the worst during this visit. But as she first drove through the city, "it looked very much like last year. Not quite so clean, but still intact - except for a few places that were destroyed." Most traffic bridges are gone.

"The main differences were lack of traffic, stumps revealing where trees had been cut down for firewood and occasional pools of sewage along the road-sides."

But beneath the surface, it is much worse, she said.

"We're back in the Middle Ages," she said, quoting many residents.

Shortages of every kind plague both rich and poor. Food prices rise virtually daily, and doctors say they get only a fraction of the medicine they need.

During a visit to a children's hospital, Salti said she saw a father, with a little boy in his arms, shouting at hospital officials because they wouldn't admit the boy.

A doctor later told her he couldn't help the boy because he didn't have the necessary medicine. Some 75 percent of children seeking care are turned away, she was told.

Those who are admitted are not faring much better. Conditions are so bad that the hospital director told Salti "the hospital will soon be a place which spreads disease rather than cures it."

"A package of powdered milk my friends bought for their children cost half a month's salary," she said.

Iraqis are drinking untreated water from a sewage-polluted river because parts to repair treatment facilities aren't available, she said.

Although she speaks fluent Arabic, Salti was frequently asked her nationality.

Even when she said she is an American, "I was treated very well. The people are very good at distinguishing between government decisions and private people," she said.


(Additional story)

Iraqis fight for food

Hungry Iraqis fought for food Saturday after U.S. and Saudi military leaders changed their policy and began issuing food to civilians trapped in southern Iraq. In a futile effort to keep people at a distance, Saudi soldiers hurled flat round loaves of pita bread into the crowd like Frisbees. Children trying to catch packages of pasta and bread fell into puddles of rain water. Men took food away from boys. "I saw grownups take food from children. It just breaks your heart. It shouldn't happen," said one U.S. sergeant.