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Brain drain in Iraq

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KAI RYSSDAL: The news out of Baghdad has been changing all day. First reports this morning had about 150 people being kidnapped from a government education office there. Later updates have brought that number down to several dozen, perhaps as many as 50. The interior minister initially threatened to shut down all of Iraq’s universities. He pulled back from that as the day wore on. But today’s incident is a sharp reminder of the threats to Iraqi academics and professionals.

Scott Peterson’s in Baghdad for the Christian Science Monitor. Scott, good to talk to you.

SCOTT PETERSON: Good to talk to you.

RYSSDAL: Have academics and professionals been increasingly the targets of these sorts of attacks in Baghdad?

PETERSON: Well, this is certainly the most spectacular mass kidnapping that we’ve had but it also is capping a process — a trend, if you will — that’s been going on for the last two or three years here. Professionals who’ve been leaving. Professionals who’ve received threats, both Sunnis and Shias, but primarily Sunnis who are the ones who formed most of that class during the Saddam era. So, they have been under fire and a lot of people . . . there’s been an extraordinary brain drain that’s taken place in Iraq.

RYSSDAL: What was making the ones who did stay, stay and possibly get kidnapped today?

PETERSON: Well, I mean, they recognize that without their input, without their intelligence, without their experience, no one is going to be able to build this country up.

RYSSDAL: The ones who do leave, Scott, where are they going and what kinds of work are they able to find?

PETERSON: Most of them are going to Jordan and to Syria. The U.N. put out figures just a week ago, saying that 2,000 people are crossing every day into Syria. And that there were 1,000 a day crossing into Jordan. This is, of course, all Iraqis — 3,000 a day. About an exodus of 100,000 a month.

RYSSDAL: Are all these dangers having the effect you might think on the education and training system in Baghdad — that schools are shutting down and it’s difficult to become a lawyer or a doctor there?

PETERSON: Well, that’s exactly right. And, in fact, it’s really impossible to become a lawyer or a doctor here. I mean, Iraq is a place, for example, that was always renowned for having some of the best doctors in the Middle East. Even during the sanctions period you’d have people coming from the Gulf who had a huge amount of money, and they would bring the materials, they would bring the medicines to Iraqi doctors who would perform the surgery simply because they were that good. So, of course, that is a reputation that is fast dwindling.

RYSSDAL: People that you’ve talked to today, Scott, after these attacks, what are they saying? Is it making them more likely now to think about leaving or might they stick it out?

PETERSON: Well, there really are not a huge number of people out in the streets these days. I mean, we see this — I see this everytime I come back to Iraq. And I’ve been coming here since . . . regularly, since 1996. But we see now is that there’s been an incredible degree of claustrophobia that’s had to be imposed on people. I mean, I’ve spoken to so many Iraqi parents. They are just paranoid about allowing their children ever outside the door. So it just means that the risks have multiplied again and again for so many Iraqis. And if they can’t leave, they just hunker down.

RYSSDAL: Scott Peterson with the Christian Science Monitor in Baghdad. Thanks a lot, Scott.

PETERSON: Thank you.

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