BAGHDAD Iraq appealed on Monday for scientists living abroad to return home and use their expertise to help rebuild their homeland's economy after years of war.
For decades Iraq boasted one of the most highly educated populations in the Middle East, and the government spent large amounts of its oil wealth to train its brightest individuals, sending many overseas to study at prestigious universities.
But thousands fled crippling U.N. economic sanctions and then the sectarian bloodletting unleashed by the U.S. invasion in 2003. Violence has dropped across Iraq in the past two years, but only about 700 university professors from across academic fields have returned.
"You, the Iraqi brains, are an important part of driving the path we are on," Sadeq al-Rikabi, political advisor to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, told the start of a three-day conference hosted by the Ministry of Science and Technology.
"We are happy to see ... these brains come back again, and I hope their return will not be just for a short time."
The government says that up to 350,000 Iraqis living overseas have university degrees. That is 17 percent of the 2 million Iraqi citizens who have fled abroad in recent years.
But many of the 200 scientists attending the meeting in Baghdad had reservations about moving back to a country where civilians are still killed every day by gun and bomb attacks.
Mohammed al-Rubaie, a professor of genetic engineering at Dublin University, said he planned to make only short visits.
"We do not want to come back (to stay), but there are ways," he told Reuters. "Scientists could be invited for specific projects to give the benefit of their advice and experience."
(Editing by Daniel Wallis and Ralph Boulton)