Monday, June 26, 2006

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Rasha Tamimi sits comfortably in the luxurious lobby of the Millennium Hotel in Sharjah, part of a line of skyscrapers that stretches the length of the United Arab Emirates — a world away from the bloodshed of her old Iraqi neighborhood.

Mrs. Tamimi, a doctor, is one of thousands of Iraqi professionals who have fled their country to escape the daily violence rocking Baghdad.

“I feel guilty sometimes, because I live a nice life, I have a nice job, I can go to fancy restaurants, while Iraqis are living a miserable life,” said Mrs. Tamimi, the mother of two toddlers.

The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) estimates that more than 40 percent of Iraq’s professional class has left the country since late 2003, and it anticipates that more will follow. The Iraqi government has issued more than 2 million passports in the past 10 months.

Of those who have left, the committee says, 350,000 are in Syria, 450,000 are in Jordan, and 90,000 are spread around the rest of the world.

“Clearly, this has a serious impact,” said Lavinia Limon, president of USCRI, a nonprofit, private organization that has been tracking refugee movements for 45 years. “No country can lose 40 percent of its professionals and not have a lasting negative impact on their economic and social progress.”

Miss Limon said much of the violence in Iraq is based on the victims’ political affiliations or religious beliefs, or their families’ ability to pay a ransom. Doctors, journalists, lawyers, engineers, artists and teachers are being attacked by an insurgency that wants to destabilize the society and by religious extremists who disapprove of their lifestyles.

“The criminals are a big part of this, as well,” Miss Limon said. “They have carte blanche for kidnapping and extortion, and a lot of people feel there is no protection. People with any means, or those with a family member in Europe or the United States, can be targeted for extortion. So, some people are leaving because things are so lawless.”

The brain drain is making life even more difficult for Iraqis. Adel al-Janabee, 24, said he could not finish his master’s degree in computer science at Baghdad University because five of his seven professors have left the country.

“I used to have 11 classes a week; now I have three,” he said. “Actually, I am thinking about quitting my studies because it is just a waste of time.”

Those in need of medical care are also suffering. Retired school principal Amer Hassan used to visit Iraq’s best medical specialist for disc and nerve damage in his spine until about six months ago, when the doctor left for Amman, Jordan.

“I have nobody to replace him, because even the other good doctors have left the country, and my situation is getting worse,” Mr. Hassan said.

Every day, Mrs. Tamimi calls her parents in Baghdad, afraid that something may have happened to them. Her father, a former military officer, is high on the hit list of those trying to eliminate all remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

“Doctors, engineers, all educated people are trying to leave, and anyone who has the chance to leave will leave,” said Mrs. Tamimi, who is working as a general practitioner in a private hospital in Dubai.

“The impact is that Iraq is losing all its intellectual people, that is for sure,” Mrs. Tamimi said. “If they stay there in Baghdad, they will be killed, either for money or for no reason, or they will be kidnapped. One time they go after doctors; another time they go after other groups.”

Even in the safety of Dubai, Mrs. Tamimi refused to say who she thought was behind the violence in her former neighborhood — including repeated knocks on her door by strangers who had to be driven off by armed neighbors.

By mid-2004, Mrs. Tamimi found herself holding a Kalashnikov assault rifle in her hand as she watched her children play in their garden. She had lost a lot of weight, living in daily fear that her children would be taken hostage, or that she would be captured or killed for working as an emergency-ward doctor in a private hospital.

Not everyone is trying to leave. Many couples cannot bear to leave behind their elderly parents. Others cannot stand the idea of living away from their homeland.

“I am like a fish, and Baghdad is my water,” said Om Noor, fluttering her hands in emphasis. “I cannot live outside of Baghdad.”

Some Iraqis are settling in well in Dubai. One 20-year-old from the Baghdad neighborhood of Karrada who now works in an Internet cafe said he had no desire to go back to Iraq.

Others have found good jobs, share apartments and send money to their families while they try to get the paperwork done to bring over their wives. But they harbor constant thoughts of returning home when it is safe enough and an anger at the United States for what their country has become.

“Listen to this,” said Mohanned, as he turned up the volume on a song that glorified the anti-American exploits of insurgents in Ramadi on his car’s compact-disc player. He asked that his last name not be used.

Among the self-exiled in Dubai are a substantial number of Iraqis who had prospered under Saddam’s Ba’athist government — men like a former air force fighter pilot who fled after narrowly escaping an attempt on his life.

“I see that the best of the Iraqis are leaving. I feel hopeless. I feel we are losing my country,” said the pilot, who warned that the brain drain would add to a growing development gap between Iraq and its neighbors.

But Miss Limon said the former Ba’athists were no less deserving of protection than refugees.

“The point is when you talk about the violence, extortion and kidnapping — and people being targeted because of their profession, religion, or political activities — that is the very definition of a refugee,” she said.

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