Iraq’s Best and Brightest Gone Missing

BY Margaret Warner  August 16, 2010 at 2:45 PM EDT

Margaret Warner chats with Iraqi ex-patriates in Amman. Photo by Larisa Epatko

AMMAN, Jordan | On Sunday night, we made a quick stop-over in Jordan on our way to Iraq. Our mission for the next three weeks: to see what Iraq looks like after seven years of war and U.S. occupation. Does the conflict-wracked country have a realistic hope of becoming self-sustaining as U.S. troops draw down — strong enough to defend itself from enemies within and without, and prosperous enough to provide a decent quality of life for its people?

One of the answers to that query can be found right here, in Jordan’s capital Amman. And for Iraq, it’s not a happy answer.

When compared to the days after the first Gulf war, this town is booming, no longer a dusty sea of half-finished buildings and rubble-strewn streets. The highways go where you need to go. The streets are clean and well-paved. Downtown Amman bursts with office buildings, apartment complexes, businesses and hotels — many of them financed by money from elsewhere in the Arab world, including Iraq. In fact, the highest building on the Amman cityscape — the five-star Le Royal Hotel — was built by Iraqi financiers. Locals say the 1990s — with U.N. sanctions imposed on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq — were very good indeed for Jordan, which became a hub for hundreds of millions of dollars of illicit trade in oil and goods of every kind.

The 2003 U.S. invasion brought another sort of Iraq-fueled boom to Amman. Between 500,000 and 750,000 Iraqis fled as sectarian violence spun out of control. Many of the poorer ones went to Syria, but wealthy and middle-class Iraqis brought their assets — and more importantly, their expertise, training and know-how — to their eastern neighbor Jordan. One chilling statistic: some 60 percent of Iraq’s doctors left, and brought their talents to hospitals in Jordan and elsewhere in the Middle East. That exodus has the Iraq of today struggling to build and sustain an economy without some of its brightest and most highly educated citizens.

Fresh off the plane from the States on Sunday night, we headed for dinner at a popular Iraqi restaurant, Al-Tabeekh, in the Amman neighborhood of Rabia. In front of an open grill presided over by an Iraqi chef, we tucked into a tasty dinner of lentil soup with fresh lime, shesh tawook (think chicken shish-kebob) and the most fabulous dolmas — stuffed grape leaves — I’ve ever had, steamed with eggplant, chicken, saffron potato slices and savory rice.

Nearby sat two Iraqi exiles having dinner: 42-year-old Ehssan Yousef, a television announcer, and a young editor, 22-year-old Hasan Ahmed Kassid, of an Iraqi-owned satellite television network based in Egypt, Al-Rafidayn TV. Kassid, a Sunni, left Iraq four years ago after his uncle was kidnapped. He got his college degree in computer engineering in Amman, and stayed. It wasn’t long before he was joined by his mother, sister and little brother as well. Yousef, who is Shia, says he also fled for his own protection, bringing his wife and children. Who’s the threat? “The militias,” they said in one breath.

The numbers say Iraq is a lot less violent than in the gory days of sectarian warfare in 2006-2008, but these two men don’t see it, and have no plans to return. “Who says it’s better?” said Yousef. “My family in Baghdad says, ‘Stay in Amman.’” Kassid shuddered. “A car bomb exploded right in front of me more than once,” he said. “I’m not going back to that.”

The problem isn’t between ordinary Sunnis and Shiites, they said, but between their respective militias — egged on and financed by meddlesome neighbors, like the Iranians, Syrians and Saudis. “Without this outside influence, there would be no violence,” said Yousef. Kassid nodded: “Look at us, I’m Sunni, he’s Shia, we’re here having dinner. There’s no issue. … But Iraq is too weak. It will never be strong enough to resist the pressure from those neighbors.”

Isn’t one of the reasons Iraq remains weak, economically and politically, because so many skilled, educated professionals like you have left, I asked. Doesn’t that make it harder for private businesses in Iraq to grow and create jobs, and for the government to deliver the services Iraqis want and need?

“We left the country to protect our lives,” Kassid retorted. “I don’t want to be a victim for someone I don’t even know.”

Yousef expressed the same trepidation at the thought of returning. “Everything’s changed there, psychologically and socially,” he said. “It would be very difficult for me to find my neighbor, whom I lived with in the old days — and if I did, he might wage war against me.”

“So bottom line, what would it take for you to go back?” I asked.

“Stability and security,” said Kassid. “And electricity and water,” Yousef added. “We’re not asking much.”

Not much. But in the minds of these Iraqi exiles, it’s more than the current government in Baghdad can deliver.

View all of the NewsHour team’s reports from Iraq.