VIENNA, Austria – Iraq's top doctors are under threat and are fleeing the country, leaving hospitals in the hands of medical students or junior physicians, an Iraqi lawmaker said Wednesday.
Doctors have been kidnapped and killed since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 that toppled ex-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, said Dr. Rajaa al-Khuzai, an obstetrician who is an elected member of the Iraqi National Council.
"They have been targeted since the fall of the regime," she told The Associated Press during a visit to Austria. "Some of them have been kidnapped and found dead in the streets, some have been released after paying a ransom."
She also told reporters earlier Wednesday that Iraqi hospitals face a shortage of medicines and are in dire need of new equipment.
"We were promised, or we believed, that we would have many new hospitals being built, and many health centers ... but none of this has been done," she said. "No hospitals have been built so far; only some of the hospitals have been serviced."
"So if you want to see a good ophthalmologist in Baghdad, you'll never find one. If you want a good gynecologist ... you'll never find one," she said. "The health services are very bad."
Al-Khuzai also estimated that cancer cases have increased fivefold since the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, and said there is a shortage of medicines to treat patients.
"We believe that allied forces at that time used depleted uranium because most of these cancer cases (are) found in the southern part of Iraq, which was close to Kuwait," she said.
Breast cancer and leukemia cases have increased most dramatically, she said later. The figure could not be confirmed.
Al-Khuzai, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, founded a World Bank-supported project to help Iraqi widows. Her visit to Austria was sponsored by Women Without Borders, a Vienna-based advocacy group for women.
The lawmaker, accompanied by her daughter Daliya Falah Shawkat, said "life is very hard" in Iraq with the threat of kidnappings, adding that she limits her public appearances to protect herself and her family.
"We almost imprison ourselves, communicating by e-mail if we have power or if we have gas for the generators, or using the mobile," she said.
She later described how two fellow women doctors — including her best friend — were kidnapped and beaten. Even children of some top doctors are targets, al-Khuzai said.
Those who can afford it make their way to the United Arab Emirates or to Jordan, and those who aren't as well off head to Kurdistan, she said.
Al-Khuzai also said she has noticed a rise in sectarian violence and speculated that a "third party" — al-Qaeda, Saddam loyalists or a neighboring nation — could be fueling it.
"Until now, I never believed Iraqis would kill each other because we have been living in Iraq as one nation for many thousands of years," she said. "So what happened now? I think, I may be wrong, that there is a third party playing around."
Al-Khuzai's daughter, a pharmacist, said Baghdad has become more dangerous for women. She said in recent weeks, an unnamed group has been threatening women in Baghdad dressed in trousers or short skirts.
She also said she can no longer take a taxi by herself or shopping alone as she did under Saddam.
But al-Khuzai stressed that Iraqis are better off now than under Saddam, and said Iraqis are optimistic about the future.
"So far we haven't seen the light at the end of the tunnel," she said. "We believe that we need to keep on moving and we will see it sooner or later but we don't know when."