Iraq losing its best and brightest
Targeted attacks and a sluggish economy are pushing academics, Christians, and businessmen to move abroad.
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"They talk about the new Iraq, but that makes me laugh unless you want to talk about the 'new' being unsafe streets and car bombs going off," says Tharwat Saadi, a Baghdad barber who plans to buy a barbershop in Syria and move there. "You can't make a living in these conditions."Skip to next paragraph
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Government officials acknowledge that families are leaving - in some cases wives and children are going abroad while fathers remain to work - but they deny it has reached alarming levels.
One official who does speak in terms of an exodus, however, is Ibtisam Gorges, a Christian member of Iraq's new interim parliament. Since the war, about 5 percent of a 900,000-strong Christian community has left, she says.
"There are 3 million [Iraqi Christians] living outside the country, and most of them want very much to return," says Ms. Gorges. "But with the kinds of things that are happening to our people here, it's not possible."
She says that after a focus on Christian males, it is now "our daughters" who are being kidnapped. "We are treated like we are part of the American presence here. It's a big pressure on our families, something more of them are deciding to escape."
The security crisis is only the latest challenge to Iraq's university system, once considered among the best in the Arab world. Salaries have fallen well below those at universities in the region, which saps the will to stay and fight against the obscure anti-intellectual forces.
"The brainpower of the country is leaving, it happened after 1990 and it's happening again now," says Isam Kadhem al-Rawi, a geologist and president of the Association of University Teachers. The organization estimates that 2,000 professors have left since the war, joining the 10,000 the association says left in the 12 years after the Gulf war.
Perhaps most unsettling, Mr. Rawi says, is that no one knows for sure who is targeting Iraq's elites, or why. Universities have received warnings via the Internet - either anonymously or from unknown groups - to separate male and female students, or to stop teaching Western ideals.
"We don't know who is threatening us, but we do know that when we report killings and kidnappings those responsible are never found," he says. That feeds rumors, he adds - including one seemingly bizarre but widely accepted theory that the US and Israel are encouraging Iraq's instability and brain drain because, as Rawi says, "they want a weak Iraq."
Still, some Iraqis are growing impatient with all the attention being paid to those leaving the country, when it is those staying here, including among the elites, whom they say will give Iraq a shot at solving its crisis.
"I have the same worries as everyone, but you can't run away and at the same time help build a prosperous and democratic Iraq," says Abbas Abu Altimen, president of the Baghdad Economic Research Center.
A business management expert who returned to Iraq after the war, Mr. Altimen says it's time for Iraqis like him to put their knowledge to work at home.
Not that he doesn't know what's causing people to do otherwise, he says. "A very good friend's son was kidnapped, they paid $20,000 to get him back - and then they promptly fled to Amman," he says. "But they will be back, just as others will, because this is a unique opportunity to focus on the positive changes and build something new."