Kidnappings Bleed Iraq of Doctors
As many as 100 have been abducted in two months. A
number have fled, leaving desperate patients and a
strained healthcare system.
By Edmund Sanders
Times Staff Writer
May 31, 2004
BAGHDAD ? Five months pregnant, Khalida Hussein lies
dying in a Baghdad hospital, a malignant brain tumor
sapping her ability to walk, eat and speak.
There's perhaps one doctor in Iraq talented enough to
save her life: a neurosurgeon ranked among the best in
the Middle East.
But Dr. Abid Hadi Khalily is holed up in his home,
recovering from a traumatic kidnapping in April.
Colleagues say he's too depressed and frightened to
return to work and is preparing to leave the country.
For two months, someone has been kidnapping the best
doctors in Iraq. Health officials and doctors estimate
that as many as 100 surgeons, specialists and general
physicians have been abducted from their homes and
clinics since the beginning of April. Some were beaten
and tortured. Most were released after the payment of
between $20,000 and $200,000 in ransom.
Already plagued by outdated equipment and drug
shortages, Iraq's fragile healthcare system is buckling
under this new security threat. Some doctors who have
not been kidnapped have fled Iraq ? just as the nation
most needs their help.
"We are losing the brain power of our most brilliant
doctors," said Dr. Sami Salman, internist and medical
director at the Special Care hospital at Baghdad's
Medical City healthcare complex. "You can't just
replace these people overnight."
Ransom, it seems, is not the only motivation for the
crimes. In many cases, abductors have ordered the
physicians to leave Iraq, sometimes setting a deadline.
Iraqi officials fear that the abductions and threats
are an organized attempt to cripple the country's
healthcare network, likening the tactics to terrorist
attacks on the country's oil pipelines or electricity
"These are not purely thieves," said Dr. Amir Kuzaii,
deputy health minister. "These people have different
aims. They are professionals. They want to paralyze the
basic functions of the country."
Interior Minister Samir Shakir Mahmoud Sumaidy has
promised to set up a task force to investigate the
"There is a political component to this," he said.
But such efforts will do little to help the desperate
patients in Khalily's waiting room. Each day they come
and sit, hoping to be treated by the renowned
neurosurgeon in case he returns to work.
One patient, a father of 11, suffers from abnormal
secretion of growth hormones, which doctors say is
causing his brain cells to overproduce. His hands and
nose are enlarged, and he suffers from severe
headaches. His operation was canceled after the
doctor's kidnapping, and he doesn't trust anyone else
to do it.
"Whoever did this kidnapping hurt me more than they did
the doctor," said Malallah Azeez, 47, a retired
The husband and brother of Khalida Hussein wait for
news of whether another doctor will be willing or able
to operate on her brain tumor. Doctors told them
Khalily was uniquely qualified for the complicated
"They tell me they will do their best," said her
husband, Hartim Makhlif.
The couple lost their first son to leukemia at age 5
"Now they say I may lose both my wife and my [unborn]
son ? again," he said.
The list of kidnapping victims and those who have fled
the country is a who's who of Iraq's medical
establishment. A pioneer in renal transplants. Saddam
Hussein's former plastic surgeon. And Khalily, who was
voted Best Arabic Doctor in 1998 by the Pan Arab
The top cataract surgeon at a leading eye hospital in
Baghdad, Dr. Jawad Shakarchi, moved to London after
being abducted from his garage in April.
"He was a genius," said a hospital manager, Amira
Salman. "Now his students are doing his job."
Many of the doctors also taught at Baghdad University's
College of Medicine. Officials there said a quarter of
the school's surgeons have gone or have requested
temporary leaves next year.
"A lot of doctors are planning to quit for a year, and
we don't have enough teachers for the clinical
studies," said Dr. Hassan Rubaye, deputy dean of the
Some schools are having to limit enrollment for
advanced studies until they can be sure there will be
enough doctors to teach.
Dr. Gayath Tawfiq, an orbital surgeon, was on his way
home from work this month when two other vehicles
suddenly blocked the road. His driver fled, and a gang
of men with machine guns grabbed Tawfiq and his
"They hit us with their guns," Tawfiq said, parting his
hair and pulling up a pant leg to reveal bruises that
remained two weeks later. His abductors lifted his
blindfold just long enough, Tawfiq said, for him to see
his son with a rope around his neck. "They told me they
would hang him if I didn't pay," he said.
After the kidnappers received $70,000, they ordered him
to leave the country forever. One of them ? whom Tawfiq
was never able to see ? exchanged wristwatches with
Tawfiq and threatened to go to his office if he didn't
leave, pretending to be a patient. "You'll recognize me
by the watch," he told the doctor.
But Tawfiq has not left. "I can't leave now," he said
with a shrug. "They took all my money."
As soon as he is able, however, he is planning to move.
By the time kidnappers arrived at Dr. Mothafer
Kurkuchi's clinic, the orthopedic surgeon ? who said he
knows dozens of doctors who have been abducted ? was
practically expecting them.
"You are welcome to come with us, doctor," one of the
kidnappers said sarcastically. They drove him around
for eight hours, he recalled, including two hours in
the trunk of the car. He lied and told the men he had
no other family, he said, and negotiated the ransom as
low as possible. "I know how to deal with Iraqis," he
Afterward, he said he did not bother to report the
crime. "What can the police do?" he asked. "Some of
them are probably in on it."
The Iraqi Central Criminal Court is investigating three
cases of doctor kidnapping, including one allegedly
involving employees of the Iraqi National Congress, the
political party founded by controversial Governing
Council member Ahmad Chalabi that was once funded by
the Pentagon. A recent raid of Chalabi's home in
Baghdad was partly based upon a doctor's claims that
INC employees had apprehended him.
Kurkuchi isn't optimistic that police will be able to
halt the kidnappings. But unlike many of his
colleagues, he will not budge.
"This is my country and I'm not leaving," he said. "A
few of us are holding the fort. But when we go, what
will happen? There is no one."
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times