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Iraqi Doctors in Britain and the War on Terror

Fearful for their lives, thousands of doctors left Iraq after the 2003 invasion. The author outlines the challenges and dilemmas they now face in Britain.
Shatha Al Juburi
13 November 2009

More than a million Iraqis of different ethnic, religious and sectarian communities live in Britain, with the majority based in Ealing, West London. They are the largest Arab community in the country and have high percentage of intellectuals, according to recent statistics. More than 3,800 Iraqi doctors live in London alone, working in hospitals and clinics. The total number of Iraqi doctors in Britain has exceeded 5,000, according to recent figures. Among them is the brilliant surgeon Baron Darzi of Denham, whose real name is Ara wartikis Tarizian, who was born in Baghdad in 1966 and moved to Britain from Ireland.

Some Iraqi doctors fled Iraq under Saddam’s regime, and a large number have come to Britain after becoming the targets of mainly criminal gangs in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion. According to reports from the Iraqi Physicians Union, more than 500 of Iraq’s leading medical professionals have been assassinated and over 7,000 have been forced to leave the country after receiving death threats. Poor equipment and a shortage of medicines, together with a lack of text books, make life difficult for the doctors, who are desperate for change. Iraqi doctors had expected life to improve after the fall of Saddam’s regime but, unfortunately, they were disappointed. In Iraq, lives have been lost on a daily basis because of a lack of basic medicines and equipment.

London has always been a centre of enlightenment for Iraqi doctors. Recently, a group of Iraqi doctors visited London under a two-year training programme offered by the Government. They are of different specialties, including orthopaedics surgery, paediatric surgery, cardiology, vascular surgery, maxillofacial surgery and emergency medicine, among others. According to the General Medical Council, more than 1,900 Iraqi-trained doctors are registered in Britain, working in Government hospitals or in private practices across the country.

Nonetheless, a large number of doctors arrive in Britain as refugees and are not allowed to work in the country.

According to the BBC, about 770 refugee doctors live in this country, approximately 30 per cent of whom are Iraqi. Most Iraqi refugee doctors fl ed Iraq after the invasion in 2003 because of the deteriorating security situation in which many became targets. Doctors coming from abroad must pass tests on their medical training and level of English to be allowed to register with the NHS, which has a huge shortage of doctors. The course is very difficult, and doctors rarely pass it first time. As a result, the numberof Iraqi doctors unable to work in Britain rises. They are stuck on benefits, despite possessing skills that the NHS urgently needs.

Following the terrorist attacks in Glasgow airport and attempted attack on a Central London nightclub in June 2007, concerns have been raised about Muslim doctors working in Britain, particularly Iraqis, because the prime suspect was an Iraqi doctor. Bilal Talal Abdullah, who was convicted of conspiracy to murder in connection with the two attacks, was born in Buckinghamshire, where his father, also a doctor, worked. He qualified in Baghdad in 2004 and was first registered as a doctor in Britain in 2006. His motive has been reported as one to avenge the destruction of Iraq during the 2003 US and British invasion. In December 2008 Abdullah was sentenced to life imprisonment. Dr Adel Mohsen, Inspector-General of the Iraqi Ministry of Health, condemned the attempted attacks at the time, rejecting any notion that Bilal Talal Abdullah was representative of Iraqi doctors living abroad. In an interview with Radio Sawa, Mohsen said: ‘We condemn these barbaric acts; this doctor does not represent Iraqi doctors. There are more than 3,000 Iraqi doctors living in Britain, most of them have children born there. They practise their profession in the areas where they live.’ He pointed out that the Iraqi Ministry of Health ‘does not have any relationship with this doctor. We do not know him. He must be one of the new doctors as he is not known in our medical community. All we know about him is that he migrated to Britain seven years ago to demand political asylum.’ At the time, Iraqi doctors working in Britain expressed anger that a fellow doctor was involved in the London and Glasgow bombing plots. They feared that the two attacks could generate a backlash and harm their reputation.

Faris, an Iraqi doctor whom I first met in Iraq in 2006, moved to Britain two years ago and is now working in London and studying at University College London. He belongs to a Sunni Arab tribe originating in Mosul, Ninewa province, in the north of Iraq. His family has a good reputation and all its members pursued higher education. Faris used to have a private clinic in Baghdad and was working at Al-Kazimiya hospital, north of the capital. During the first days of the US-led invasion in 2003, Faris witnessed the looting of his hospital by mobs and thieves. The Shiite Mahdi Army militia of the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr took control of the hospital and threatened Faris to leave the hospital for being a Sunni. At first, he was defiant and continued to work there, but after the militia tried to assassinate him twice, he eventually fled the country to save his life. The revelation that the prime suspect behind the Glasgow and London bomb plots was an Iraqi doctor affected him deeply. ‘I am very upset and disgusted,’ he said at the time. ‘This is the sense of all Iraqi doctors I know in Britain. These perpetrator doctors were supposed to treat patients and help people – not kill them. The fact that the prime suspect is an Iraqi doctor makes me very angry. ‘We Iraqi doctors who fl ed the country after the invasion have already suffered a lot in our country, lived with threats and spent much of our time dealing with the victims of bombs. We want to live in peace here in Britain, but now we are concerned that the terrorist attacks of Glasgow and London will harm our reputation.’ Would he return to Iraq after the Iraqi government passed a law allowing doctors to carry arms for self-defence? He said he would not go back to Iraq because guns could not protect him from militias and criminal gangs who had killed hundreds of doctors and had not been brought to justice.

Ahmad is another Iraqi doctor working at a hospital in Liverpool. He left Iraq to escape the injustice of the former Iraqi regime. Commenting on the failed attacks and their implications for the situation of Iraqi doctors in Britain, Ahmad said that the attacks will damage the image of Iraqi doctors who came to Britain because they were victims of injustice under the former Iraqi regime and, more recently, to escape the violence after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. ‘I still do not understand how could doctors, who were supposed to save people and to not let them down, can do such shameful and criminal acts,’ said Ahmad. ‘The involvement of the UK in the war on Iraq does not justify terrorism and indiscriminate killing of innocent people. These terrorists have betrayed their oath to help people in need. They brought shame on their community and Islam. I do not blame people here if they treat us differently or if the police come to ask us questions. But I really hope they realise that Bilal Abdullah does not represent Iraqi doctors in Britain.’

Many Iraqi doctors living in the UK feel guilty for enjoying the good lives of NHS doctors while their fellow doctors back home are being threatened and are contending with severe shortages of medicine and medical equipment in a country with overflowing casualties on daily basis. Some hope that the security situation in Iraq will improve so that they can be repatriated, while others say they may never return and instead look for asylum.

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