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And I'm Renee Montagne. The long war in Iraq has been particularly hard on that country's health care system. Thousands of doctors are among the many professionals who fled Iraq. Many of them faced threats of kidnapping, extortion or murder. Iraq's health ministry is luring some of those doctors back by promising to pay them well and to protect them. For many, now settled in safer places, that's not incentive enough. NPR's Corey Flintoff begins his story at one big hospital in Baghdad.
COREY FLINTOFF: There was a time when Baghdad's main hospital was reputed to be the biggest and best in the Arab world. After the American invasion, there was a time when this hospital was looted of vital equipment. And the more than a thousand beds here were filled exclusively with casualties from bombings and gunfire in the city streets. Now the hospital is struggling to return to its original mission, but its hallways are packed with patients, waiting for an overworked staff of doctors to attend to them. Few people who remained here during the worst period, in 2006 and 2007, blame their colleagues who left. The situation was hellish, says Haider Sahib(ph), a 21-year-old physician's assistant in the hospital's emergency room. So bad, that health care workers were sometimes returned to the ER as patients or corpses.
Mr. HAIDER SAHIB (Physician Assistant, Baghdad Hospital): (Through Translator) My two colleagues - God bless their souls, had just finished their overnight duty, and on the way home, they were both shot dead. So very shortly after they left, their bodies were returned to the same emergency room where they'd been taking care of people.
Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)
Mr. SAHIB: (Foreign language spoken)
FLINTOFF: Sahib is now tending to an elderly man with a cut finger, a patient who never even would have been admitted to the hospital in the bad days. Dr. Hamza Abdullah Salah, the chief of the hospital, was here through the violent times. He says he couldn't think of leaving.
Dr. HAMZA ABDULLAH SALAH (Hospital Chief, Baghdad): I've been born in this country. I've been graduated from this university, from this medical college. I've spent my life. I have a long, a deep root in the country.
FLINTOFF: Dr. Salah is a trim, white-haired man of 63 who is followed by an entourage of medical students, because this is a teaching hospital, connected to the Baghdad Medical College. He says despite the new crop of doctors, the need for seasoned specialists is great.
Dr. SALAH: We need doctor a lot. If you ask me nearly more than 15,000 of Iraqi doctors being fled out during - after the fall.
FLINTOFF: The Health Ministry says some doctors have started to return as many as 800 over the past two months. Salah says the government is making it as easy as possible for doctors to return, putting them back on the payroll in as little as a week.
Dr. SALAH: And you can work, because I have two 2,000 to 3,000 patients come to this hospital every day.
FLINTOFF: Many of the thousands of doctors who left Iraq found work in surrounding countries, Jordan, Syria or the wealthy states of the Persian Gulf. But hundreds simply moved to a safer part of Iraq, the Kurdish region in the north. Doctor A.O. Yones, the minister of health for the Kurdistan region, says his government welcomed doctors from Baghdad, partly for humanitarian reasons and partly to serve a need.
Dr. A.O. YONES (Minister of Health, Kurdistan Region): The interest for us was - we had some extra doctors to serve the community on one hand. And also we had some specialist which we didn't have here before.
FLINTOFF: One specialist who accepted the Kurds' invitation is Dr. Nabil Hassou, an interventional cardiologist who graduated from the Baghdad Medical College and later became one of its best-regarded professors. He said he and his family were living in Syria when the Kurdish government made him a tempting offer.
Dr. NABIL HASSOU (Cardiologist): They told me if you want to come, you are welcome. So, I got invitation, I came to (unintelligible) Kurdish town. And we started in the project of building a cardiovascular hospital which took us about two years.
FLINTOFF: Hassou says he faced additional harassment in Baghdad because he's a Christian. Now, in his early 60s, he sees no possibility of returning.
Dr. HASSOU: I don't feel that I am going to Baghdad, not in the near future, not in the next 10 years. I have nothing left there in Baghdad.
FLINTOFF: For now at least, the main hope for restoring Baghdad's medical community seems to lie with the student doctors who make rounds with Dr. Salah at the city's major hospital. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Baghdad.
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