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Iraq's doctors trickle home as attacks decline

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Once targeted by militants, Iraqi doctors are trickling back from abroad after a decline in violence, but conditions are still far from ideal.

Iraq is desperate to lure back medics and other professionals who fled in droves after being targeted by insurgents bent on undermining its nascent democracy.

Last year, the government decreed doctors could carry a gun to defend themselves, an option not open to other civilians.

“I’m not afraid ... there’s no targeting of individuals now,” neurologist Ali Marzok said, only two weeks into his new job at a Baghdad hospital after returning to Iraq from Syria.

“Iraq is so much better than when I left it.” Marzok left Iraq in 2006 when the bombing of a Shi’ite shrine triggered a surge in sectarian slayings.

While attacks are still common -- several bombs have rocked Baghdad in recent weeks -- assassinations carried out against professionals including doctors, lawyers and academics have declined, and about 600 doctors have returned since June.

“Of course it’s safe enough. Why are they returning? Because of the security improvement,” said Najimuddin Mohammed, head of a committee formed last June to encourage doctors to return.

Yet bone marrow specialist Abdul-Majeed Hammadi’s commute to work highlights lingering safety fears. His neighborhood, littered with twisted metal, collapsed buildings strewn with bullet holes and burned-out cars, still looks like a war zone.

“This area is still dangerous -- it’s still very ‘hot’,” he said outside his Baghdad home, warning a visitor not to park out of sight. Militants need only a few minutes to attach a “sticky bomb” to a stationary vehicle.

Hammadi stayed in Iraq through the years of bloodshed unleashed by the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The country is safer now but he still takes precautions. He leaves his Mercedes at home and shares a battered Volkswagen to avoid attention.

On his way through the hospital grounds to his office, he passes a burned-out ambulance, then a hospital message board featuring fading pictures of hospital workers killed since 2003.

“I wanted to stay in Iraq and use my specialist skills, and not start from scratch abroad and do menial medical work,” he said, explaining his decision to stay.

Most of the hospital is filthy and decrepit. Cigarette butts litter corridors and paint flakes from the walls. A crowd of patients on crutches, in wheelchairs and on stretchers clamors at his office door, pleading to be seen.

Psychiatrist Ali Abdul-Razak is still ambivalent about whether he should have returned to Iraq from Britain in 2004.

“I regret it and I don’t. There hasn’t been any of the needed development. There’s corruption, and no order,” he said.

Editing by Michael Christie and Robert Woodward