Baghdad, 3 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- If you ask many Iraqis what they want most in life these days, the most common answer is "security." That commodity, so widely available under the iron rule of Saddam Hussein, remains in short supply 15 months after the toppling of his regime. Today, insurgent bombings dominate the news but, for ordinary Iraqis -- and particularly Iraqi professionals -- the biggest fear is kidnapping and extortion by gangs of criminals. Now, Iraqi professionals are increasingly looking at emigration, either for short or long terms, as the best solution to their problems.
"When I came back to Iraq, I was surprised by the killing, rape, robberies, and kidnapping. I have a little girl, and I'm scared to send her to school. I'm scared to drive my car. I will sell my house, furniture, and precious things. I will emigrate once again."
Um Maysa'aa fled to Jordan for shelter just ahead of the U.S.-led war on Iraq in 2003. When she returned to an Iraq without Saddam Hussein -- something she welcomed -- she thought she was coming home forever.
But now she says she again feels she can no longer safely stay in her own country. After 15 months of worrying daily about roadside bombings and kidnappings, she has lost confidence that things will get better.
Um Maysa'aa is just one of many Iraqi professionals and business people -- the people the country most needs for reconstruction -- who say they are thinking about leaving Iraq.
"The problem is general insecurity. I'm not going to wait until somebody comes to my house and kidnaps me." -- Taha Salih, a merchant in Baghdad
Taha Salih, a merchant in Baghdad, told RFE/RL that he is selling his business, and thinking of moving with his family to Jordan. He, too, said the main reason he wants to go is the lack of safety: "The problem is general insecurity. I'm not going to wait until somebody comes to my house and kidnaps me. He could kidnap my mother, he could threaten me. We are living in a country where there is no stability. And the problem is there is no hope."
Salih maintained that a month of Iraqi sovereignty has done nothing to improve the situation. Assessing the new interim government, he observed: "They said they would impose martial law and curfews, but it seems to be empty promises and gangs continue to roam the streets."
So, the businessman is abandoning his earlier plans to open a factory out of fear that such a venture would attract the attention of criminal gangs. Instead, he is contemplating something he says he never considered even during the worst times under Saddam Hussein: "I never thought to emigrate during those days because there was a government, there was law -- even though it's true there were negative aspects with the previous regime, [and anyone] who crossed the 'red lines' [opposed the regime] was in danger."
Today, interest in emigration among professionals has grown to the point that Iraqi officials say there now are at least as many Iraqis taking refuge outside the country as there were during the Saddam Hussein era.
Faris Daniyal is director of media at Iraq's Ministry of Displacement and Migration. He told RFE/RL that some 4 million Iraqis lived outside the country under the former regime. He estimatee that since last year's U.S.-led invasion, that number has increased: "Emigration is escaping from death, from the insecurity in Iraq. Honestly, Iraq has become a safe haven for terrorists. One look at the passport office building and you will see the great number of people who want to leave. If Iraqis had money, we would have seen double the number of people wanting to flee, I'm sure of that."
However, Daniyal said the flow of Iraqis is not all one-way. He noted that the outflow is partially offset by the return of some long-term Iraqi exiles from abroad.
He cited the example of some of his friends who are musicians. "They are thinking to return and rebuild this country," he said. "They say it's a test for us."
Under Saddam Hussein, Iraqi professionals who fled the country often did so because they feared living under a regime that could arrest or extort money at will from anyone perceived to be an opponent.
Poorer Iraqis fled to seek economic opportunities abroad as the economy largely collapsed over the decades following the costly 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. Much of the collapse was due to the imposition of UN sanctions following Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
Now, the repression commonplace under the Hussein regime is gone, but the high crime rate that has come with the breakdown of the old order has brought new grounds for fear. At the same time, economic opportunities remain scarce as the economy awaits reconstruction and the unemployment rate remains close to 50 percent.
The prime destination for emigration is still Jordan, which had strong political and business ties with Iraq even in the Hussein era. Increasingly, many Iraqis also go to Syria, whose previously cool relations with Baghdad have warmed in the wake of Hussein's ouster.
AP recently reported that an estimated 250,000 Iraqis have taken advantage of looser border controls to flock to Syria. There they take up residence, do business, or simply take a vacation away from their troubled homeland.
The new interim Iraqi government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has said restoring security will be the top priority as it seeks to suppress a continuing insurgency and crack down on criminal activity.
As one sign of its determination, the government said in July that it plans to restore Iraq's longstanding death penalty for serious crimes. Implementation of the death penalty was waived under the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority.
But efforts to crack down continue to be hampered by shortages of police officers to patrol streets, investigate crimes, and arrest perpetrators.
According to recent figures, there are now 15,000 police patrolling Baghdad, a city of some 6 million people. The anti-kidnapping unit of the police is an overwhelmed force of just 30 men. The head of the unit recently told Britain's daily "The Independent" that kidnapping now makes up some 70 percent of the serious crimes in the city, compared to 1 percent before 2002.
The Iraqi police are reported to now be establishing outreach programs to encourage civilians to report suspicious criminal activity in their neighborhoods.
Partly based on such intelligence, police carried out sweeping arrests of thieves, kidnappers, and other common criminals in the capital in July. The police detained more than 500 people and confiscated four tons of explosives in the show of force.