By Aseel Kami
BAGDHAD, Sept 29 (Reuters) - Doctors in Iraq will have the right to carry guns to protect themselves, the government said on Monday, in a bid to address the security concerns of a profession that has been targeted by gangsters and militants.
Thousands of Iraqi doctors have fled over the past five years, leaving the country desperately short of qualified medical personnel. Doctors held a conference in Baghdad in June to ask for better protection.
"Under a new government decree, the cabinet has directed that each doctor may carry one weapon for self defence," the government said in a statement.
The cabinet also recommended that the ministry of health and provincial governments make plans to build secure residential compounds for doctors, both inside and outside hospitals.
Once the elite of Iraqi society, medical specialists became a particular target for insurgents, militias and kidnappers in search of rich ransoms during the violence that followed the U.S.-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The June conference reported that at least 176 doctors have been killed in the last five years.
But the country has become safer over the past 18 months and the conference concluded that about 400 doctors had returned to Iraq in 2008.
Zaid Abdul-Nafie, an oculist at Baghdad’s Ibn al-Haitham eye hospital, said the permission to carry guns came too late.
"I will not carry a weapon," he told Reuters. "If this decision had been issued earlier things might have been different. Now the situation is much better, doctors can go to their clinics or hospitals more freely, much better than last year."