Stakeholders met Aug. 13-14 in Basra to discuss the state of healthcare in Iraq, which in the last few years has improved in some geographic areas, but remains a pressing concern, especially in most rural communities.

Representatives of several nongovernmental organizations, including the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), the Basra Provincial Reconstruction Team and United States Division-South gathered to discuss various healthcare issues at the two-day conference, which concluded with an open forum at Basra International Airport.

Maj. Reginald Hughes, a USD-S public health physician with the 486th Civil Affairs Battalion, said while Iraq has become a more stable and secure nation during the last seven years, the country's healthcare system continues to be a work in progress.

"We believe that healthcare - from a civil capacity perspective - is a way to make the country stable and give the people a better way of life," Hughes said.

According to Dr. Sami Al-Saedi, a development and humanitarian support officer with UNAMI, health threats such as cholera, H1N1, leishmaniasis, malaria and tuberculosis are prevalent in Iraq's southern region.

One action that could reduce high illness rates is growing the number of physicians in urban and rural communities. Part of the answer, officials said, is enabling the local medical industry to produce more qualified doctors - a systemic upgrade that will take time to achieve.

In the short term, the Iraqi Medical Association is aiding the pool of foreign physicians who choose to practice in Iraq's rural areas by streamlining the licensing process for physicians coming from other countries that allows them to treat patients in Iraq.

Alaa Hussein Abed, a medical coordinator with the charitable foundation Assisting Marsh Arabs and Refugees (AMAR), said among its priorities is the development of strategies for improving healthcare infrastructure in Iraq, whether it's improving post-operative care or making effective medications more accessible to patients.

The biggest challenge that looms, he said, is garnering more financial support from the Iraqi government to push such initiatives.

"There are few allocations for the rural areas," he said.

AMAR, which operates in the Basra, Dhi Qar and Maysan provinces, has established nearly a dozen health clinics in southern Iraq.

USD-S is currently under the operational control of the 1st Infantry Division, which deployed out of Fort Riley, Kan., in January.