The List Death Threats and Academia in Iraq

There is a formula in Iraq: The more education you have, the more at risk you are. Kais, a doctor and professor of medicine, left his homeland after his name appeared on The List. Insurgents had decided he was too smart to live.

By in Alvesta, Sweden


On an Iraqi refugee's tongue, it's a terrifying word -- one that conjures up the worst images of hostages begging for their lives; of dead bodies found on the streets at dawn; of Baghdad morgues full of unidentified corpses. The word is "list." If your name appears on The List, you can be sure your time is short.

There are a number of ways to make the list. Iraqi security personnel have a privileged place at the top. Anyone suspected by the insurgency of working with the American occupiers risk being added. But the simple fact of having a higher education is sometimes enough. Just ask Kais.

The 35-year-old doctor used to work at a hospital in a Shiite section of the Iraqi capital. He was a cardiologist, but he also taught physiology at the university. Indeed, when Saddam Hussein fell in the spring of 2003, Kais's life didn’t change much at all. His job at the hospital continued as before, except for a sharp shortage of medical supplies. But four months ago, Kais fled, first to Syria and then to Sweden. He'd received word that his name had been added to The List. Now he lives in the tiny town of Konga in the heart of Sweden, an hour and a half north of Malmö by train.

'Just Kept Getting Worse'

"Even after the war, I didn't have any real problems," Kais says in the precise English he learned during his studies. "Just two years ago, in 2005, I even went to France for two months. But I came back because I thought things were going to get better for me. Instead, it just kept getting worse."

Particularly perilous for Kais was the rising sectarian violence. After the Feb. 2006 bombing of the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, Shiite holy site -- and the subsequent revenge killings of Sunnis perpetrated by Shiite radicals -- commuting between Sunni and Shiite areas of Baghdad became more dangerous. And Kais, a Shiite, lived in a neighborhood controlled buy Sunni extremists.

Sectarian violence on the streets of Baghdad skyrocketed last year and drove an ever-increasing number of Iraqis out of the country. Aside from the people killed in car bombings that grabbed international headlines, a horrific number of seemingly random murder victims turned up on the streets of the capital every morning -- no less than 1,030 were found in December of last year. The number has since dropped, with 473 corpses found on the streets in April, even as deaths from vehicle bombs have ticked upwards.

After the Samarra explosion, though, the change was dramatic. The mosque was bombed on the morning of Feb. 22, and by that afternoon, the streets of Baghdad were largely empty. People prepared for the worst. There was also a marked increase of impromptu checkpoints in the Shiite Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, as Muqtada al-Sadr's Shiite militia prepared to go on the offensive.

On the List

Then the corpses started turning up. "You got the feeling that things were changing when you went out in the morning and saw a couple of dead bodies on the streets," says Firas, a fellow refugee who lives in Alvesta and who used to work as an interpreter with the Americans in Baghdad's Green Zone. "Or when you saw a checkpoint manned by people in civilian clothes and you didn't know who they were."

In his hospital, though, Kais quickly learned that the new violence wasn't just sectarian. "We began hearing that there was a list of specialists and doctors who were threatened," Kais recalls, perched on the edge of a bed in a sparsely furnished, government-issue apartment in Alvesta. "Someone had told me that I was on those lists."

There are a number of reasons that Kais and his colleagues became targets. For one, they had money. Start-up insurgents in need of cash, or even organized criminals profiting from chaos, could pick up a doctor and demand a ransom. In September of last year, Kais reports, a specialist at his clinic was kidnapped next to a checkpoint at the entrance to the complex. Another colleague was nabbed and only set free after a $40,000 payoff.

There were reasons beyond the money, though. At the university where Kais taught, three students were kidnapped and killed -- presumably just because they were studying.

Stop Life

"It started in around September last year that doctors and academics became targets," says Firas. "The goal is to create chaos and stop life. The message is: 'Don't go to college. Don't get an education. Stop life.' This is the message. Stop life."

It is a message the insurgents have been remarkably successful in communicating. Sweden's refugee camps are full of well-educated Iraqis with professional degrees -- exactly those Iraqis the country needs in order to rebuild. According to an early May UN report on humanitarian conditions in Iraq, at least 40 percent of the country's professionals have left the country.

Kais felt the pressure. As the security situation worsened, he changed his schedule: He would go to work early one day and late the next. Each day tried to take a different route to the hospital. And during his last month in Iraq, he was able to go to work only once or twice a week.

Then one day, he couldn't go at all. He got a phone call from a Sunni friend at the hospital, who, like many Iraqis, knew someone who knew someone who was involved in the insurgency. "He said he was calling to tell me not to come anymore," Kais says. "He said that my name was high up on the list. He had always been the one to tell me to relax and that whatever happened, it was God's will. When he called to tell me not to come, I knew it was real."

Kais's journey to Sweden included a two and a half month stop in Syria, where he flew from Baghdad. He says it's a relief for him to be in Sweden -- or it will be, when he's granted residency and can bring over his wife, who is still in Baghdad. Once that happens, he says, he is planning on staying.

Other academics are sure to follow. "The hospitals are empty of specialists," he says. "It is really the young people who are running things now. And they are targets, too."

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