ARBIL – The call from his mother changed Dr. Harb Zakko’s life. "Someone has been calling me to open the door, saying he has something for you," his mother said.
Soon after, apparently the same person called him at his clinic, asking personal questions. The doctor got the message. He returned home and asked his family to pack. Two days later they drove out of their ethnically mixed Karrada neighborhood in Baghdad and headed for Arbil in Kurdistan to the north.
The calls had sounded like the beginning of an abduction threat. They came only 10 days after a colleague’s son was abducted. The family paid $10,000 ransom, but got back only the body of their son.
Such stories are common in Karrada neighborhood, home to many academics and professionals.
"It’s a mess in Baghdad, there is no law there it’s militias who are ruling the streets," Zakko told IPS. The doctor now works at a beauty center in the predominantly Christian district Ainkawa north of Arbil.
Zakko is among hundreds of Iraqi professionals who have been leaving the "blind violence" behind them to move to Kurdistan, the northern region of Iraq, or to other countries.
This migration has created fears of a brain drain from a country already paralysed by years of isolation and wars. Iraq was placed under sanctions after the first Gulf War in 1991, and faced the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Professionals seem to have become a particular target. "Experts and academics are killed almost daily," Fuad Massoum, head of the Kurdistan Alliance Slate in the Iraqi parliament, told IPS in a phone interview from Baghdad. "This will do tremendous harm to Iraq and its infrastructure, a significant part of which is these professional people."
He said that the issue of targeting of the professional elites has been discussed frequently in parliament. "But it is the government that must take action on that since parliament has no executive authority."
There are varying, but alarming figures about the number of professionals being affected by violence in Iraq. According to the Washington-based Brookings Institute, an independent think tank, 40 percent of Iraq’s professionals have left the country since 2003.
The Britain-based charity Medact says that 120 doctors and 80 pharmacists have been killed over the past three years, and more than 18,000 medical professionals have fled Iraq.
The Brussels Tribunal, an anti-occupation group, has produced a list of 281 university professors killed in Iraq from April 2003 to late November 2006. More than 70 other names are on a list of academics who have been threatened or kidnapped, according to the group.
Many professionals who move to Kurdistan are being employed in local government institutions, and have filled gaps in areas of their specialty.
Rezan Sayda, a senior official in the Kurdistan Regional Government’s health ministry, told IPS that her ministry has employed 600 doctors who fled insecure parts of the country, and that another 320 doctors are on a waiting list for employment. Ten to 12 physicians move to the Kurdish region daily, among them some big names in their field, she added.
"The Iraqi government does not give permission to the doctors who want to be employed in Kurdistan, because they fear that will encourage other to come here," Sayda said. But the doctors come anyhow.
The motives of those who target professionals vary from political and sectarian to plain crime by highly organized gangs who kidnap for money.
"They target academics randomly, and the famous have been threatened a lot," said Dr. Qasim Hussein Salih, 57, a professor of psychology who left Baghdad in late 2004. Salih, who was educated in Britain, was head of Iraq’s Psychology Association.
"What is going on in Iraq now is an attempt to stop life in this country," said Salih, who now teaches psychology at Arbil’s College of Education. "If this continues, then the final disaster is only a matter of time."
The professor is struggling to survive. The salary he gets is not enough even for bare needs, he said.
Salih lost two of his colleagues during the mass kidnapping of staff at Iraq’s Higher Education Ministry last month. He says he can hardly bear the pain.
"When I am alone at night, I cry for my friends who were killed, and for my country," he said. "Iraq is a rich country and it is very sad to see Iraq like this, and I blame America for that."