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Iraq losing its best and brightest

Targeted attacks and a sluggish economy are pushing academics, Christians, and businessmen to move abroad.

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When Saadoon Isa's son was released by kidnappers earlier this year after a ransom was paid, the criminals sent the boy's father a message: "Tell him to leave the country because Iraq is not his, it is ours."

"I still don't know who they were," says Mr. Isa, the vice president of Baghdad's Al-Nahrain University. "But I took that message to be directed to Iraq's educated people, its professors, business leaders, even the people working hard in our ministries. They want us to leave."

With stories like Isa's multiplying, more of the very Iraqis needed to rebuild the country are heeding the pressures to flee. Iraqis speak worriedly of a brain drain that is denying Iraq a part of the educated, moderate, and entrepreneurial population required to move forward.

It's a reversal, in the 18 months since the war, of the euphoria that brought thousands of exiles back for the opportunity to build a new Iraq.

Many of those Iraqis are still here, building political and business careers. The new interim government is dominated by returnees, and former exiles are expected to fare well in planned January elections.

But now signs are multiplying of Iraqis bowing to pressures to leave:

• Every day long lines of Iraqis form outside passport offices. Officials say they have issued more than 500,000 passports since sovereignty was restored in June. Many applicants say the passport is a kind of insurance policy against deepening chaos.

• More than 40,000 Assyrian and other Iraqi Christians are estimated to have fled since war's end, hastened by a series of church bombings this summer. The outflow weakens a prominent minority that has been a modernizing and tempering force in Iraq for centuries.

• More than 200 university professors have been either killed or kidnapped, according to academic organizations, prompting as many as 2,000 of Iraq's best educators to leave - and many more to consider posts abroad.

"Already the economic conditions for our professors was not good, so when you add a security situation that threatens them and their families, many of them will seek to go elsewhere," says Isa.

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