Doctors Under Fire in Iraq

With Salam Talib

Until two weeks ago, Ali Falah worked as an emergency room doctor in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk. The city, which is ethnically mixed but dominated by two Kurdish militias, has been the scene of increased sectarian violence. Most doctors left the city earlier this year after one physician was gunned down inside the emergency room.

Falah says lately he’s often been the only doctor on the floor of an emergency room that receives 80 patients a day. Falah says he was ready to hang on and continue working, but two weeks ago someone dropped a note off at his home in a Shi’ite section of Kirkuk.

“They threw a letter in the house saying the residents who are Shia have to leave the city,” he says. “Otherwise, they said, ‘What will happen, will happen.’ So most of the people left. Me also.”

Falah says that was the last straw. He left for the southern province of Amara, where he’s living near his fiancée’s family. He’s given up medicine, saying it’s too dangerous, and is working for a company. He won’t say which type.

“Economically, the situation for doctors was bad,” he says. “They pay us about $200 a month, and we are living in a dormitory. It’s not enough. We work about 16 hours a day and with the situation in Kirkuk – the explosions and the incidents are so numerous we can’t keep up. There’s a very heavy load on us, and now communication with the people is very difficult.”

Falah says the different factions don’t understand that medical doctors are impartial and only want to care for the sick and wounded.

“The police and military don’t respect us as doctors,” he adds. “They’re aggressive toward us. It’s gotten to the point where they beat doctors and insult us. That’s become very normal.”

Nezar al-Sammarai, a Sunni Arab lawyer practicing in western Iraq says he’s not surprised Shi’ite doctors like Falah have fled areas like Kurdish-dominated Kirkuk for their ancestral homelands in southern Iraq. Shi’ite professionals are also leaving Sunni-dominated western Iraq, he says.

Al-Sammarai says that’s not displacement.

“Western Iraq didn’t used to be a mixed area,” he explains, “so we don’t consider what’s happening here displacement. We just think that people are returning back to their original place. So if the professionals who lived here were originally from other areas, they’ll not live in those sectors anymore because they’re not from here.”

In such an environment, over a million Iraqis have simply given up and left the country. Among them, the United Nations estimates fully 50 percent of Iraqi doctors have left since the U.S. military invasion in 2003.

“It’s just so difficult to live in Iraq,” says Nada Doumani, spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross-Iraq, which is now based in Jordan. “When you leave your home in the morning, it’s not clear that you’ll come back in the evening. Of course people want to get out.”

Professionals are at greater risk, she adds, “because they are perceived to make more money and therefore face a bigger risk of kidnapping.”

Indeed, doctors aren’t the only professionals under threat in Iraq. Since February, Iraq ‘s Ministry of Higher Education reports, nearly 180 professors have been killed and at least 3,250 have fled the country.