Iraq: Insurgents target doctors

More and more phycisians leave the country, saying their lives are in danger.

By Sahar al-Haideri in Mosul (ICR No. 132, 12-Jul-05)

Government officials say insurgents are pressuring local doctors to emigrate in an effort to deprive Iraq of healthcare workers.

They say physicians are also falling prey to criminals who kidnap them for ransom.

Dr Abdul-Wahab, a professor of neurology at the College of Medicine, said he no longer feels safe in Iraq. The doctor, who declined to give his name, fears for his life and talks about colleagues who have feel so threatened that they've fled the country.

"We expected that Iraqi exiles with scientific abilities would come home, but the reverse is happening," he said. " Doctors who decide to stay here are considered heroes."

The health ministry says at least 130 physicians have been kidnapped since the fall of the Saddam's regime, but the Iraqi Medical Association claims that the number is closer to 300.

So far, 50 doctors have been murdered, and another 3,000 have moved abroad because of threats against them, prompting the interior ministry to offer those who remain guns and bodyguards.

One female doctor who was kidnapped and then released after her husband paid a 20,000 US dollar ransom, said he was forced to sell their home and her clinic to buy her freedom.

"I have now stopped practicing medicine," said the doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, and is now living abroad. "But what sin did I commit?"

Recalling her ordeal, the doctor said, "I can remember the day when I was kidnapped as if it's a video playing before my eyes. I was treated very badly."

She was tricked by a couple who said they wanted her to come with them to check up on their pregnant daughter as she was bleeding after falling from a ladder. In the car, the doctor was handcuffed, blindfolded and bundled into the boot.

Muhammed al-Hassooni, manager of the protection against violence programme at the ministry of health, said the targeting of doctors has had serious repercussions for Iraqis' health, as there are enough of them now to cope with demand for treatment.

One doctor pointed out that as the violence continues, Iraq needs more doctors, not less.

Another physician who specialises in brain x-rays says he has taken a year of unpaid leave because he believes his life is in danger. "This action was necessary. Any man with any sense must protect his life, whatever the price might be," he said.

A group of recently-qualified doctors told IWPR they were hoping to practice medicine somewhere safer than Iraq.

"We ask the international media to send messages to those who are murdering doctors to ask them to stop their criminal acts," one of them said.

A gynecologist and obstetrician said the safety of doctors is the responsibility of both the community and government officials. She said "we defenseless people who are just trying to provide valuable services to patients".

Sahar al-Haideri is an IWPR trainee in Mosul.