Iraq Reimposes Freeze on Medical Diplomas In Bid to Keep Doctors From Fleeing Abroad

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 5, 2007

BAGHDAD -- Iraq is hemorrhaging doctors as violence racks the nation. To stem the flow, the Iraqi government has recently taken a cue from Saddam Hussein: Medical schools are once again forbidden to issue diplomas and transcripts to new graduates.

Hussein built a fine medical system in part by withholding doctors' passports and diplomas. Although physicians can work in Iraq with a letter from a medical school verifying their graduation, they say they need certificates and transcripts to work abroad.

It is a common refrain among war-weary Iraqis that things were better before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Electricity in Baghdad was more reliable; sectarian hostility was rare; Iraq was safe -- except for the many victims of Hussein's tyranny. But rarely has the government embraced a policy that so harshly evokes the era of dictatorship. To some students and doctors, the diploma decision, like Iraq's crumbling medical system, provides clear proof of the government's helplessness and the nation's decline.

"I don't think anybody would think now to go back like

it was in Saddam's time. It would be a scandal," said an incredulous Akif al-Alousi, a leader of the Iraqi Medical Association, upon hearing about the measure from a reporter. After verifying it, Alousi said that the association would challenge the rule, which he called a violation of "basic rights."

Noor Jassem, 24, a fifth-year medical student at Mustansiriyah Medical College in Baghdad, agreed.

"They have no right to impose such a restriction," Jassem said. "If the government cannot provide security for the doctors, then why should it stand in their way to leave?"

Baghdad University medical students said a sign announcing the freeze on medical degrees was posted in late March at the office where they pick up their diplomas. The order was issued by the Ministry of Higher Education and cited a February letter from the office of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Spokesmen for the ministry and the prime minister distanced themselves from the announcement.

"There is no legal grounds for stopping such a thing," said Higher Education spokesman Basil al-Khatib, who declined to produce a copy of the letter from Maliki's office.

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the Hussein-era rule had never been changed. As they did in the past, he said, medical graduates can still get certificates upon completing service in public hospitals for six years -- one year of service for each year of their "free education."

Medical students and professors disputed those assertions, saying that since the fall of Hussein all new graduates have been given diplomas.

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