Why many of Iraq's elite don't flee

After two of Hussein's lawyers were killed, Khamees al-Ubaidi stayed on the job out of duty. He was murdered Wednesday.

Masked gunmen in security-force uniforms dragged one of Saddam Hussein's top defense lawyers from his Baghdad home and killed him Wednesday. Khamees al-Ubaidi is now the third defense attorney of the Iraqi High Tribunal to be murdered.

Despite the dangers, Mr. Ubaidi stayed here, instead of shuttling to safer neighboring countries as many top lawyers did, even though he expressed doubt that a fair trial was possible in the midst of chronic insecurity.

"I leave it in God's hands," Ubaidi told the Monitor last October. "My job requires me to defend any accused man, and I couldn't accept backing down now."

Ubaidi was one of a shrinking number of Iraqi professionals who chose to remain in their violent homeland. Many others who have stayed say they do it out of a sense of duty to a nation that needs their experience and expertise now more than ever. Others have family obligations that prevented them from joining the exodus.

But all face a daily diet of fear and intimidation, threats and even attempts on their life – dangers that cause family members living safely abroad to call them "crazy."

The judge

The threats come scribbled on pieces of paper, or as text messages sent to the phone of Judge Zuhair al-Maliky, the former head of the Central Criminal Court of Iraq.

The latest one, a month ago, read: "Death to the traitor!" Days later, a bomb destroyed one of the cars lined up in front of Mr. Maliky's house to provide a makeshift security cordon. An attack last year wounded three bodyguards; in another one his car was shot at.

"We had great hopes of a better future, a better life and a better country," says the lawyer, who brought corruption charges against top officials and the well- connected politician Ahmed Chalabi in 2005 and was soon pushed out.

"I feel depressed a little, because I was dreaming of having a real judiciary, of having judges able to stand against all kinds of pressures," says Maliky. "I lost every hope here, and thought it would be better to start elsewhere.... Everyone told me: 'Keep your mouth shut, and keep your position.' So what was left to stay for?"

So last fall, Maliky moved his family out of Iraq and landed a good job in Europe. He had his visa stamped in his passport, and was packing his bags. But his neighbors implored him to stay, promising that "we will be your bodyguards." Then "crazy Zuhair," in his words, changed his mind.

"I thought maybe we still have a chance," says Maliky. Then he echoes a common refrain among stalwarts. "If I leave, and others leave, who will stay?"

Now Maliky is drafting the new military penal code and tax reform – and is certain of his decision to stay. He says he has a high salary, a big house, and a family that stand by him in Iraq – though his children still marvel at the pistol he sometimes wears, and at his bodyguards.

But as Iraq continues to suffer brain drain, Maliky is also increasingly alone: Of the group of 20 or so lawyers he worked with in 2003, only two remain. Four have been killed. Maliky speaks often to those abroad; "many" want to come back, though the judge estimates it will be five years before Iraq improves.

Hopes soared for Maliky's family, as they did for so many Iraqis, during two elections and a referendum. But they dropped soon thereafter, as car bombs and death squads again became part of the daily grind.

"I like Iraq, my homeland. I want my kids raised here," says Maliky. "Even the air is different [in Iraq]. I don't want to sound melodramatic, but here I feel safer, in my own country."

"It's very risky. A lot of good colleagues have lost their lives," says Maliky, whose mobile-phone ring tone builds to a rousing "Charge!" "But I think this is the tax we should pay.

"My wife wants me to go, and tells me: 'You will be the reason for our death,' " he says. "I say: 'Death is in God's hands, and no one knows when that will be. One day I will die, but I want my children to be proud of me.'

"She says: 'They would prefer that you are alive.' "

The professor

The senior professor stays in Iraq, but is torn by his family's competing needs. His elderly parents won't leave Baghdad, so he cares for them. One son lives with him, finishing his own university degree; another studies in London.

And then there are his three brothers and three sisters, all abroad, and spread from New Zealand to the Gulf.

"The only thing I hear from them is: 'Why are you still there? Why don't you come out?' " says the professor, who asked not to be named.

He has many reasons to leave, including one from last week. The son of a friend, a trained engineer of mixed Shiite and Sunni parents, was woken by an early morning knock on the door.

"They shot him and left, just like that," says the professor, shortly after returning from the funeral. "Nobody knows why. His family is shattered. He represented the [mixed] Iraqi society. There was nothing like this before you [Americans] came to liberate us."

Such events are too common for many Iraqis, and this summer, after final exams, this family will make a decision. "My son tells me that only stupid people stay in this country – only people with no brains."

But the professor also has several reasons to stay. "I love my country, and would like to serve my country," he says, wistfully aware that at 58, his options abroad are limited. Caring for his parents is also an "enormous job."

"These are the real reason to stay; not because I like the life, because it is almost impossible," says the professor. "We've been given no choice but to survive."

Indeed, the figure shared among academics is that 2,500 university professors have been killed, kidnapped, assassinated, or told to leave the country. Once a stickler for students being in class on time, this professor finds he often can't be on time himself for his twice weekly classes, because violent attacks disrupt traffic.

"At the beginning, everyone was thinking 'This is the New Iraq,' and now they find it worse than before," says the professor. Before Hussein was toppled, people had to join the Baath Party to help guarantee good results and a decent life; today, he says, the same system is in place, but it is run by sectarian militias. "Nothing happens [for anyone] without a recommendation letter now."

The professor predicted disaster at the outset of the US invasion in 2003, but few, even among his neighbors, believed him. He recounts the 1991 war, the tough US-led United Nations sanctions throughout the 1990s, and the mistaken WMD intelligence that justified the war. "You expect me to believe that the people who did that came to liberate us and help us?" he asks.

The doctor

Dr. Abdallah could not be more low-profile. He treats patients at his clinic and teaches at the medical school, and now lives alone in a house where his family once cheered the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in early 2003 when they watched it live on TV.

His family is safely abroad, fed up with the violence, and pushing him every day to leave Iraq. On the wall are pictures of three generations of graduates, and of weddings enjoyed during safer days in Iraq.

The doctor travels often to conferences abroad, but can't tear himself away from Iraq for good, even though he has insisted that his family leave.

"I have a commitment to my country, to my people," says Abdallah, a pseudonym for a doctor who says that he has yet to be threatened. He would leave "within 24 hours" if a threat came, because "you are taking a chance with everything you have made for yourself."

"I don't know how they choose people," he says. "But I always expect some person to come and kill me, or kidnap me. A kidnapping is worse, because there is humiliation and torture."

Such calculations are more than the rest of Abdallah's family can take. Last year, his wife told him that "enough is enough; I can't live here anymore." She sends him regular text messages: "I'm so worried about you," says one. "[Do] you want to destroy our family?"

When she hears of a bomb, she calls to make sure Abdallah is safe. "Probably she is right," says the doctor, after making tea for a guest in his large kitchen. His furniture is draped with dust covers. "When you are outside [Iraq], it seems impossible to live. When I come back, I ask myself 'Why?' "

Abdallah figures that one-third of his colleagues have left the country. Many are in their mid-40s, he says. "It's a bad thing, the people with experience have gone. The reserve of the country are leaving; they lost faith, and they left."

His family did, too, and not just because of the bombs. The new conservatism that is gripping some parts of Baghdad mean past tolerance is disappearing.

"Keeping [the family] outside is good for them, they are young and live a good life," says Abdallah. "I don't want my daughter to wear hijab [head scarf] and feel restricted in her life. And they don't have to worry about roadside bombs."

For Abdallah, the state of violence today is a betrayal of their high hopes in 2003.

"We were so happy, so optimistic about what the Americans had done, but Saddam Hussein is very humane compared to what is happening now," the doctor says. "I'm sorry to say that – I hate him – but the Saddam time was much better. I blame the Americans; they made so many mistakes. They are the big players."

Still, Abdallah persists in Baghdad. "Iraqis are so committed to our country – it's something in our hearts," he says. "It's not like the Lebanese who go to Brazil, or the Philippinas who go here and there."

The good news, Abdallah says, is that his students "are even more committed to learning than before." The bad news is that, "in the back of their minds, they all want to go abroad."

And his patients? Even when he goes to a conference outside Iraq for a few days, the message is the same, says Abdallah: "Doctor, please don't leave us."

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