Last week, unknown assailants broke into the medical clinic of Iraqi doctor, Salim Abdul-Hamzah, in the Maamel neighbourhood of Baghdad. In other parts of Baghdad, two doctors were kidnapped: Mohammed Ali Zayer who works in a hospital in the Sadr City area and Saad Abdul Hur who had a private clinic in the New Baghdad neighbourhood. In the same week, a dentist, Shatha Faleh, was killed in a medical centre in the Washwash area.
All of the above happened within the space of just one week in Baghdad. No wonder Iraqi doctors are worried.
“The recent crime wave targeting Iraqi doctors is catastrophic for the country,” Jasib al-Hajami, a senior official in the Baghdad health department, told NIQASH. “The doctors and medical staff are the real wealth of our country and these crimes targeting them will push medical professionals out of Iraq. In fact, many of them have migrated or are thinking about migrating. More efforts must be made to protect them.”
There is no protection for doctors in Iraq. Armed gangs target us and we are at the mercy of tribal law.
On June 25, doctors in Baghdad and in other parts of the country organised sit-ins inside their local hospitals to protest the crime wave that appeared aimed at them and their colleagues. Their banners called upon the Ministry of Health to offer them better protection and the individuals protesting also warned of a decrease in the number of trained professionals in Iraq.
Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior says they have started to investigate the incidents and they announced the arrest of members of eight different gangs that they say were involved in the kidnap or murder of Baghdad medical professionals.
The attacks on doctors has been a subject of much concern among locals. They fear a return to the bad old days, after the US-led invasion of 2003, when armed gangs specifically targeted Iraqi professionals, including doctors, engineers, academics and senior army officers.
“These events appear to indicate a resurgence of that phenomenon, when we saw doctors and scientists assassinated,” Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi said in an official statement. “These are criminal acts and they show that the post-Islamic State period will not be an easy one. It may be bloody and it could see the country emptied of the human resources who would be most capable of leading reconstruction in Iraq.”
Criminal gangs are not the only issue facing Iraqi doctors. Another recent and widely publicized case involved Baghdad cardiologist, Sarmad Abdul Amir. After an operation during which the patient, an elderly man, passed away, the patient’s tribe forced Amir to pay them reparations.
The tribe closed his clinic and put a sign on his door that read: “Wanted by the tribe”. The message: The doctor would be hurt or possibly killed unless he paid blood money, to compensate for the man’s death, to his tribe. This was despite the fact that the patient and his family had been warned about the risks of the surgery.
Amir says the tribe members found his home and threatened his family so he eventually paid them a large sum of money, around US$100,000. At the same time, Amir decided to leave the country and start a new life in Jordan. He still practices in Baghdad, albeit secretly, coming back one week in every month to treat his old patients at a Baghdad hospital.
Another doctor, Samir al-Attar*, has taken similar steps. Assailants beat the doctor inside his own clinic in the upmarket Harithiya neighbourhood in Baghdad. His secretary ran to the nearest military checkpoint for help but by the time they returned, the assailants had gone.
Fearing further attacks or revenge, al-Attar decided against going to the police. Instead he quietly closed his surgery and immigrated with his family to the semi-autonomous, northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan, which is generally considered safer than most other parts of the country.
“There is no protection for doctors in Iraq,” says al-Attar, who may even leave Iraq altogether sometime soon, in a telephone interview. “Armed gangs target us and we are at the mercy of tribal law. Security forces are unable to protect us.”
*Names of some doctors in this story have been changed for security reasons, at the doctors’ request.