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Professionals Fleeing Iraq As Violence, Threats Persist
Exodus of Educated Elite Puts Rebuilding at Risk

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.

Many of those émigrés flooded back into Iraq when Hussein fell. But the country's instability and daily regimen of violence have made some reconsider their return. Others who stayed throughout Hussein's rule are finally saying goodbye to their homeland now.

Numbers are impossible to document, partly because those who leave often tell passport officials they are going out of the country for a short visit. Often without telling friends or neighbors, they take a few things from their homes, lock the doors and vanish.

An official at the Interior Ministry's statistics office said the number of Iraqis traveling overland to Jordan held steady at about 200 to 250 a day from July 2004 to June 2005. Since last July, however, the number crossing the border -- excluding truckers and traders -- has ballooned to 1,100 a day, according to the official.

"They may come back if it's safe," Fayed said.

Or they may not. Since the fall of Hussein, kidnapping has mushroomed into a lucrative business. Even children are snatched, to be ransomed the same day for a few hundred dollars from their distraught parents.

Anyone displaying signs of wealth, often professionals and businessmen, are particular targets of kidnappers in search of high ransoms. However, payment is no guarantee a hostage will not simply be killed and dumped; some authorities claim dozens of bodies are found every day but never reported.

That danger is overlaid by the activities of an insurgency that aims to terrify the society by means of bombings, murder and abduction -- or threats. In addition, the death toll from sectarian violence among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds has climbed steadily.

"Professors have been threatened. Doctors have been killed in their clinics. Killing has become common," Fayed said. "Some people believe this is intentional, to try to empty Iraq of its elite."

Kubasi, the former head of Iraq's military medical corps, believes that. In late April, his secretary handed him a letter written in what he called "bad Arabic" giving them all by May 6 -- 10 days -- to leave the country. He showed the letter to authorities, who suggested he had faked it. By May 8, Kubasi was in Jordan.

His three sons and his daughter are all physicians. They could not risk staying, he said.

"Every day, we sit here, 10 or 12 of us, senior professionals, just discussing the situation," Kubasi said from Amman. "It's mental death to sit here. But even my patients say I should not come back. Really, really, I could not pay for a kidnapper's ransom. And in that case, you would be killed."

It frustrates him to watch the medical training system he helped create fall apart. "The circuit of teaching, training and care is being broken. It may not be recovered," he said.

"Our medical schools and doctors are known all over the Arab world. The teaching care was excellent, based on the British system. We were successful under Saddam Hussein to start our own postgraduate studies, including many medical specialties. Now they are ridding the country of all of this."

Um Mustafa and her husband, a businessman, had hoped to stay. But they abandoned that goal when thieves burst into their bedroom, held their young son in a headlock, with a gun to his head, and demanded that his parents hand over all their gold and jewelry.

"We didn't want to leave," said Um Mustafa, 27, who still fears attack and asked not to be fully identified. "We were a very happy family. Wealthy. My husband had a good job. We had money, a house, car and servants."

The men terrorized the family for more than two hours, threatening to kill or kidnap their 6-year-old son, while their 2-year-old cried. They beat Um Mustafa's husband, finally leaving when they were satisfied they had found all the jewelry, guns and money in the house. They left the couple bound with plastic handcuffs and locked in a room, saying they would burn the house as they left.

"Maybe God wanted to give us a new life," Um Mustafa said. "They didn't kill us."

She and her husband decided to move to Jordan. But they heard that Jordanian authorities, worried about the influx, were making life more difficult for Iraqis there. So they have bought tickets to Cairo instead.

"We don't know how we will live there. My husband will have to find a new job. I will go to work," she said. "Leaving the country was not an easy decision. Any time you start a new life, it's very difficult. But it will be better than staying here in a country were there is no safety anymore.

"I've been through four wars. I never, never felt like leaving before," Um Mustafa said. "Now, life in Iraq has become unsafe. I don't feel safe in my own bedroom -- or in the whole country."

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