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Israeli doctors screen Iraqi patients, defying tensions

An Israeli doctor measured the height of an Iraqi boy at the Red Crescent Hospital in Amman, Jordan, yesterday. An Israeli doctor measured the height of an Iraqi boy at the Red Crescent Hospital in Amman, Jordan, yesterday. (Nader Daoud/Associated Press)

AMMAN, Jordan - Israeli doctors screened 40 Iraqi children suffering from heart disease yesterday - a rare case of direct cooperation between the Jewish state and the Arab country.

The doctors said they hope their work will help improve relations between the two Mideast nations and ease tensions between Israel and the rest of the Arab world.

Dr. Sion Houri, director of the pediatric intensive care unit at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, Israel, said he thinks "ties and friendship" are being built through his work in Jordan with the Iraqi children

"Our only previous exchanges with the Iraqis are the Scud missiles," he said, referring to the missiles Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, fired on Israel during the 1991 Gulf War.

"But the Iraqis we met here have been very receptive and cooperative, which makes me believe that the animosity and war aren't between the people," Houri said as he and two colleagues screened the Iraqi children, who range in age from a few months to 14 years.

Following the US-led war that ousted Hussein in 2003, diplomats discussed the possibility of improved relations between Israel and Iraq, which fought two wars with the Jewish state since its foundation in 1948.

But in 2004, Iraq's then-prime minister, Iyad Allawi, vowed that Iraq would not break Arab ranks and sign a separate peace deal with Israel. Jordan and Egypt are the only two Arab countries to have signed peace treaties with Israel.

Yesterday, the Iraqi children and their parents gathered at an outpatient clinic in the Red Crescent Hospital in the Jordanian capital, Amman. Most of the families are Sunni Muslims of Kurdish origin who live in northern Iraq.

Also among them were three Sunni families who live in Baghdad.

Inside the clinic, some children were lying in beds, hooked to heart monitoring machines as doctors examined them. Children played with toys in a reception area and cut paper hearts.

One child screened yesterday was 4-year-old Mustafa, who Houri said was diagnosed with crossed arteries and needs two surgeries in Israel soon, to unfold the blood vessels before they harden.

Mustafa's mother, a Kurdish woman who identified herself only as Suzanne because she fears reprisals from militants in Iraq, said traveling to Israel made her "anxious. Not because I'm going to a country considered an enemy of Iraq, but because I'm afraid of retribution by Iraqi militants, by the terrorists back home."

"I'm afraid and it's not easy for me at all, but I'm willing to take the risk to save my beloved son's life," she said as she caressed Mustafa.

The heart program is sponsored by Save a Child's Heart, a humanitarian organization founded in Israel in 1996. Logistical support is provided by the Jerusalem-based Christian group, Shevet Achim. Surgery is carried out at Israel's Wolfson Medical Center, and funding comes from private sources, including Christian charity groups and individuals.

In four years, 35 Iraqis have received surgery through the program, including 18 children who traveled from Iraq to Jordan for screening in January. It was not immediately clear how many of the children screened yesterday will be taken to Israel for treatment.

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