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Iraq: Brain Drain Poses Threat To Future

Iraqi professionals continue to face kidnapping or death in random attacks (epa) NEW YORK, November 16, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The mass kidnappings of an estimated 150 employees from the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research building in central Baghdad on November 14 underscores a huge problem for Iraq: the dwindling of its professional class.

The lack of viable opportunities coupled with the devastating daily violence has caused many of Iraq's engineers, doctors, lawyers, and professors to flee the country while some of those who remain have been killed. The massive "brain drain" may eventually have a chilling effect on Iraq's future ability to rebuild itself.

The flight of its best and brightest professionals is nothing new in Iraq. Under Saddam Hussein, an estimated 4 million people fled into exile. After the fall of the Hussein regime, many emigres returned in the hopes that Iraq would become a center of learning, scientific research, and art in the Arab world. However, instability and violence have forced many professionals to flee the country, despite the government raising their salaries in an effort to keep them from leaving.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an estimated 1.8 million people have fled to neighboring countries, mainly Syria and Jordan, since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. A November 3 UNHCR report said that 1,000 Iraqis a day are crossing over into Jordan and 2,000 a day into Syria. Based on those figures, the organization estimates that nearly 100,000 Iraqis are fleeing the country every month.

Professionals Targeted

While the data shows that there is a steady stream of Iraqis fleeing the country, there are also indications that there is a systematic assault on the professional class. Basil al-Khatib, a spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, told Al-Jazeera satellite television on November 14 that 160 university lecturers from the ministry have been killed since 2003.

The nonprofit group Medact estimated in a report released in March that 120 doctors and 80 pharmacists have been killed and more than 18,000 physicians have fled Iraq due to threats since the U.S.-led invasion. And according to the November 2 Brookings Institution's "Iraq Index," 40 percent of Iraq's professionals have left since 2003.

While most Iraqis fear being killed by seemingly random high-profile strikes such as car bombs or suicide attacks, Iraq's professionals are being targeted in part because of their status and wealth. Kidnappings have become increasingly common, and it has become something of a cottage industry since the fall of the Hussein regime. Anyone displaying signs of wealth, such as professionals and businessmen, are targeted for kidnapping and ransom, and payment does not always guarantee that a hostage will not be executed and their body dumped.

Driving Out The Elite?

There are also indications that some groups are intentionally trying to empty Iraq of its elite and intelligentsia. Abdul Sattar Jawad, a former editor of the now defunct "Baghdad Mirror" and a literature professor at Al-Mustansiriyah University in Baghdad, blamed Shi'ite militias for threats and harassment that drove him from Iraq last year, the "San Francisco Chronicle" reported on November 15.

"This is the rule of the militias, the mob, the riffraff of people. They don't like education, they don't like intellectuals, and now the campuses are overruled by the firebrand clerics, by the religious militias," Jawad said.

Indeed, on Al-Iraqiyah television on November 15, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki blamed the mass kidnappings at the Higher Education Ministry on discord between rival militia groups. "What is happening is not against the background of terrorism, but rather against the background of differences and clashes among militias affiliated with various sides," he said.

Still, others have suggested that the intimidation of teachers, doctors, and other professionals is part of a concerted effort by the Sunni-led insurgency to keep Iraq unstable. The attack on the Higher Education Ministry was perhaps intended to send a message to the government that the insurgents can strike anywhere and no place is safe.

Consequences For The Future

The flight of so many Iraqi professionals has created a brain drain that will have lasting effects on Iraq's future. With the flight of the professional class, Iraq lacks human capital with the necessary skills to keep its institutions, bureaucracy, and economy running efficiently. This could lead, in the worst-case scenario, to the breakdown of Iraqi society, but more likely will pose major setbacks to Iraq's social and economic development.

More importantly, without skilled professionals and academics, Iraq will have no one to train and teach a new generation, which would make it extremely difficult if not impossible to rebuild a successful and independent nation.

Indeed, lacking a core class of competent professionals could force Iraq to become even more dependent on the international community for assistance. That in turn would mean the international community, including the United States, would be obligated to remain in Iraq for a longer period of time to help get it on its feet, since Iraq would lack the specialized human resources to do so itself.

Finally, a massive brain drain of Iraq's professional class and intelligentsia may make it more difficult to establish a stable democracy. Historically, these groups form the foundation of what is understood as civil society and have played an important role in democratic transitions around the world. Therefore, their weakness or absence could mean that Iraq would be more vulnerable into falling victim to authoritarian rule, an idea that would certainly cause great concern to the international community.

Iraq In Transition

Iraq In Transition

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