Iraq losing its best and brightest

Targeted attacks and a sluggish economy are pushing academics, Christians, and businessmen to move abroad.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When Saadoon Isa's son was released by kidnappers earlier this year after a ransom was paid, the criminals sent the boy's father a message: "Tell him to leave the country because Iraq is not his, it is ours."

"I still don't know who they were," says Mr. Isa, the vice president of Baghdad's Al-Nahrain University. "But I took that message to be directed to Iraq's educated people, its professors, business leaders, even the people working hard in our ministries. They want us to leave."

With stories like Isa's multiplying, more of the very Iraqis needed to rebuild the country are heeding the pressures to flee. Iraqis speak worriedly of a brain drain that is denying Iraq a part of the educated, moderate, and entrepreneurial population required to move forward.

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It's a reversal, in the 18 months since the war, of the euphoria that brought thousands of exiles back for the opportunity to build a new Iraq.

Many of those Iraqis are still here, building political and business careers. The new interim government is dominated by returnees, and former exiles are expected to fare well in planned January elections.

But now signs are multiplying of Iraqis bowing to pressures to leave:

• Every day long lines of Iraqis form outside passport offices. Officials say they have issued more than 500,000 passports since sovereignty was restored in June. Many applicants say the passport is a kind of insurance policy against deepening chaos.

• More than 40,000 Assyrian and other Iraqi Christians are estimated to have fled since war's end, hastened by a series of church bombings this summer. The outflow weakens a prominent minority that has been a modernizing and tempering force in Iraq for centuries.

• More than 200 university professors have been either killed or kidnapped, according to academic organizations, prompting as many as 2,000 of Iraq's best educators to leave - and many more to consider posts abroad.

"Already the economic conditions for our professors was not good, so when you add a security situation that threatens them and their families, many of them will seek to go elsewhere," says Isa.

"It's a drain that already existed [after the Gulf war] but now it has accelerated," he says. "Before the economic factor was first, but now things have changed and security is the top worry motivating people to seek a post out of Iraq."

An economy that has failed to take off - restrained by stalled reconstruction work, which in turn is inhibited by lack of security - is also a factor. Exiled business people who returned with high hopes are at least keeping their foreign options open. "In this situation about the only thing growing is what we call the Jordan connection," says Yaghthan Hasan, a Baghdad importer of furniture and other goods. "More people with the means are going to Amman to set up businesses," he adds, noting he regularly makes the commute himself.

The lines at passport offices tell the story of average Iraqis who are looking to benefit from a new right - passports and foreign travel were available only to a privileged echelon under Saddam Hussein. But among the applicants every day are people contemplating life somewhere else.

"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."

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."

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