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Iraq losing its best and brightest

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"It's a drain that already existed [after the Gulf war] but now it has accelerated," he says. "Before the economic factor was first, but now things have changed and security is the top worry motivating people to seek a post out of Iraq."

An economy that has failed to take off - restrained by stalled reconstruction work, which in turn is inhibited by lack of security - is also a factor. Exiled business people who returned with high hopes are at least keeping their foreign options open. "In this situation about the only thing growing is what we call the Jordan connection," says Yaghthan Hasan, a Baghdad importer of furniture and other goods. "More people with the means are going to Amman to set up businesses," he adds, noting he regularly makes the commute himself.

The lines at passport offices tell the story of average Iraqis who are looking to benefit from a new right - passports and foreign travel were available only to a privileged echelon under Saddam Hussein. But among the applicants every day are people contemplating life somewhere else.

"They talk about the new Iraq, but that makes me laugh unless you want to talk about the 'new' being unsafe streets and car bombs going off," says Tharwat Saadi, a Baghdad barber who plans to buy a barbershop in Syria and move there. "You can't make a living in these conditions."

Government officials acknowledge that families are leaving - in some cases wives and children are going abroad while fathers remain to work - but they deny it has reached alarming levels.

One official who does speak in terms of an exodus, however, is Ibtisam Gorges, a Christian member of Iraq's new interim parliament. Since the war, about 5 percent of a 900,000-strong Christian community has left, she says.

"There are 3 million [Iraqi Christians] living outside the country, and most of them want very much to return," says Ms. Gorges. "But with the kinds of things that are happening to our people here, it's not possible."

She says that after a focus on Christian males, it is now "our daughters" who are being kidnapped. "We are treated like we are part of the American presence here. It's a big pressure on our families, something more of them are deciding to escape."

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