Iraq’s Elite Exodus

WaPo fronts a report from Doug Struck that Iraq’s elites are leaving the country in droves in the face of continued violence and instability.

Iraq’s top professionals — doctors, lawyers, professors — and businessmen have been targeted by shadowy political groups for kidnapping and ransom, as well as murder, some of them say. So many have fled the country that Iraq is in danger of losing the core of skilled people it needs most just as it is trying to build a newly independent society. “It’s creating a brain drain,” said Amer Hassan Fayed, assistant dean of political science at Baghdad University. “We could end up with a society without knowledge. How can such a society make progress?”

Professionals and businessmen with the means to escape are going to Jordan, Syria, Egypt or, if they have visas, to Western countries. Those left behind say they feel abandoned.


Exodus is not new to the country. Iraqis who could flee Saddam Hussein’s repressive rule did: Poor Shiite Muslims sneaked across the border into Iran, and Sunni Arabs crossed the mountains into Syria or the desert to Jordan. People often waited years for permission to attend a seminar or do business in another country and then would disappear there. Hussein began holding such people’s families hostage to guarantee their return.

Many of those émigrés flooded back into Iraq when Hussein fell. But the country’s instability and daily regimen of violence have made some reconsider their return. Others who stayed throughout Hussein’s rule are finally saying goodbye to their homeland now.

Numbers are impossible to document, partly because those who leave often tell passport officials they are going out of the country for a short visit. Often without telling friends or neighbors, they take a few things from their homes, lock the doors and vanish. An official at the Interior Ministry’s statistics office said the number of Iraqis traveling overland to Jordan held steady at about 200 to 250 a day from July 2004 to June 2005. Since last July, however, the number crossing the border — excluding truckers and traders — has ballooned to 1,100 a day, according to the official. “They may come back if it’s safe,” Fayed said.

Or they may not. Since the fall of Hussein, kidnapping has mushroomed into a lucrative business. Even children are snatched, to be ransomed the same day for a few hundred dollars from their distraught parents. Anyone displaying signs of wealth, often professionals and businessmen, are particular targets of kidnappers in search of high ransoms. However, payment is no guarantee a hostage will not simply be killed and dumped; some authorities claim dozens of bodies are found every day but never reported.

That danger is overlaid by the activities of an insurgency that aims to terrify the society by means of bombings, murder and abduction — or threats. In addition, the death toll from sectarian violence among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds has climbed steadily. “Professors have been threatened. Doctors have been killed in their clinics. Killing has become common,” Fayed said. “Some people believe this is intentional, to try to empty Iraq of its elite.”

This is certainly bad news from the standpoint of both assessing the current situation and the prospects of making it better. At the same time, though, it is hardly surprising.

Even aside from the combination of insurgent and terrorist violence, Iraq is a Third World country. Those with wealth and professional training routinely migrate from the developing world to the developed world. Even relatively developed and stable countries like India have difficult keeping their best and brightest, since they can have much more comfortable lives elsewhere.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.