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Kidnapping of Doctors Causes Great Concern in Iraq - 2004-07-05

Over the past three months, doctors have been kidnapped in Baghdad and held for ransom. The tactic is causing a steady exodus of physicians, leaving the health care system in near-critical condition.

According to the Iraqi Medical Association, the IMA, no fewer than 24 prominent doctors have been kidnapped in Baghdad over the past three months.

The problem has become so worrisome that the IMA has created a special committee to try to come up with workable solutions. A member of the committee is Dr. Akif al-Lalousi, a pathologist, who says, at first, doctors were not among victims of kidnappings and street assassinations.

"And then we saw a series of kidnappings going on, with very carefully-selected figures, which would have a lot of impact on society," said Dr. al-Lalousi. "They were all prominent figures, professors, cream of the cream in their fields; neurosurgeons, transplantation surgeons, professors of surgery, ophthalmologists, different groups. They were kidnapped, asked for ransom, and when they were released, they told their colleagues, and they had to leave the country."

According to Dr. Ghaib al-Kassam, who is a general surgeon, the aim is to try to rid Iraq of its intellectual wealth.

"It looks as if the aim is to drain the country out of its brains. And they tend to select the highly qualified, the more experienced doctors, asking them for money and then asking them to leave the country," he said. "It doesn't look like a group of thieves. It looks as if there's some organization behind it, a criminal organization, trying to drain this country out of its brains."

At some hospitals, it is becoming almost impossible to find a doctor. The administrator of one private hospital, who asked not to be identified for fear of being kidnapped himself, said, over the past three months, his hospital has lost two-thirds of its doctors.

"Doctors who were working in the hospital, three months [ago], about 15 doctors," he said. "And, now we have only five doctors." Answering the question of their whereabouts, he said "Well, they have their own vacation. They have trip outside, abroad. They said for a couple of months or weeks and they will be back, as they said.

The administrator said the hospital has never before experienced a time when two-thirds of its doctors suddenly took simultaneous, extended vacations. The result is that the private hospital now faces a financial crisis.

"This is a fact. We cannot ignore it," he said. "The patient is becoming seldom. The number of them is very limited due to this situation. We are not making any money, because the expenses, the charges, the maintenance of the hospital is much more than the income."

The secretary-general of the Iraqi Medical Association, Dr. Suaidi Kasim Hassain, says as many as 200 doctors have left the country over the past six months, most of them fearing for their lives. He says doctors are easily approached because of their humanitarian relationship with their communities, and are, therefore, easy targets for kidnappers. He says the impact of the doctor kidnappings will be felt for years to come.

"It represents a big loss to the health care business, because the persons attacked are the scientists in their specialty. They are well known. They are top specialists.

"So, it is a big loss in this way, because to get somebody, some doctor like those, you need more time and training and money," he continued. "And, it also represents a loss, because it will not enhance [encourage] other doctors who are outside to come. They will not."

Senior officials with Iraq's Health Ministry say a conference to address the issue will be held later this month, involving several government ministries, including the one responsible for internal security.

While many doctors in Iraq acknowledge they are afraid for themselves and their families, they say they are choosing to stay, because they are more concerned with the future of their country. Dr. Ghaib al-Kassam says they feel they have no choice.

If too many doctors leave Iraq, he says, who will treat Iraqis?