Professionals Fleeing Iraq As Violence, Threats Persist

Children rescued textbooks after their Baghdad school was hit by bombs in January 2005. Many well-off Iraqis have fled for their families' safety.
Children rescued textbooks after their Baghdad school was hit by bombs in January 2005. Many well-off Iraqis have fled for their families' safety. (By Hadi Mizban -- Associated Press)
By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 23, 2006

BAGHDAD -- The office of Iraq's most eminent cardiologist is padlocked. A handwritten sign is taped on his wooden door in the private clinic in Baghdad: Patients of Dr. Omar Kubasi should call him in Amman, Jordan.

There, Kubasi, 63, spends his days sitting at a cafe with other physicians and professionals from Iraq. Frustrated, he watches from afar as the medical education system he helped set up during his 36-year career slowly disintegrates. His teaching doctors are fleeing the country in fear. Younger physicians are looking for other countries to train in. Even patients are leaving, no longer confident in the care they can get in Iraq.

"I think it's part of the plan for the country's destruction," Kubasi said by telephone. "The situation in the last six months has gotten so bad, we couldn't continue."

Kubasi left Baghdad in May after he and nine other doctors received letters, written in a childish hand, telling them they would be killed if they did not stop working in their native Iraq. He and his colleagues had been the objects of threats before, but the last carried a foreboding urgency, he said.

Iraq's top professionals -- doctors, lawyers, professors -- and businessmen have been targeted by shadowy political groups for kidnapping and ransom, as well as murder, some of them say. So many have fled the country that Iraq is in danger of losing the core of skilled people it needs most just as it is trying to build a newly independent society.

"It's creating a brain drain," said Amer Hassan Fayed, assistant dean of political science at Baghdad University. "We could end up with a society without knowledge. How can such a society make progress?"

Professionals and businessmen with the means to escape are going to Jordan, Syria, Egypt or, if they have visas, to Western countries. Those left behind say they feel abandoned.

Ahmed Meer Ali, a 27-year-old resident doctor, is left alone to man the private hospital where Kubasi's office is locked and shuttered. Most of the specialists who worked there, providing care to patients and guidance to Ali, have left.

"They are the ones with specialties from England or the U.S.A. They were the ones teaching me," he said. "Now, some patients even go to Iran to get care. In the past, no one in Iraq would go to Iran."

And many educated young Iraqis are hoping to follow.

"Of course I would leave if I could," said Ihana Nabil, 22, who will soon graduate from Baghdad University with a degree in political science. "There's no peace, no stability and no jobs here," she said. Other students at the campus, a temporary oasis in a violent city, agreed.

Exodus is not new to the country. Iraqis who could flee Saddam Hussein's repressive rule did: Poor Shiite Muslims sneaked across the border into Iran, and Sunni Arabs crossed the mountains into Syria or the desert to Jordan. People often waited years for permission to attend a seminar or do business in another country and then would disappear there. Hussein began holding such people's families hostage to guarantee their return.

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