He took one last look at the family home where he had been brought up, his two sons shyly clutching to their mother's robes.

As the taxi drove southward to the border with Jordan, the civil engineer who wanted to pursue a musical career finally allowed himself to weep.

The US military was weeks away from launching Operation Iraqi Freedom, but Raad was not convinced that a post-invasion Iraq would herald an era of civil liberties and economic prosperity.

"I knew the whole country would descend into chaos," he said as we sipped traditional Iraqi tea in his Amman apartment last September.

"I refused to raise my family, my two sons, in the despair most of us knew was coming."

In the Jordanian capital, Raad, 38, played Beatles covers and jazz music in bars, hotels and at special functions to raise enough money to get his family out of Iraq.

A few weeks after Baghdad fell, his wife and two sons joined him in Amman and the family has since applied for refugee status in the US.

Youth leaving

Three years after the US-led invasion of Iraq, stories like Raad's are becoming increasingly common.

Alwan: I don't want to be killed by
an illiterate black-clad slum dweller

Tens of thousands of mostly young Iraqi professionals, artisans, musicians, college professors and doctors have left in search of security and stability abroad.

Zeyad Alwan*, 30, a doctor in Baghdad, says the carnage in the city has convinced him he must leave by any means possible.

"I simply don't want to get killed by an illiterate, black-clad slum dweller, or a militiaman dressed in police uniform, or a young confused soldier from Texas, or a bearded fundamentalist from Yemen or Saudi Arabia," he said.

Alwan had wanted to leave before the 2003 invasion, citing a thirst for personal freedoms which he could not achieve under the government of Saddam Hussein and its suppression of political dissent.

"I have seen enough people kidnapped, shot at, and blown to pieces; and I have witnessed many friends, colleagues and family leaving the country. It's not the same country I used to live in. I don't know it anymore."

UN attack

For Omar Farouq, it was the attack on the United Nations compound in late August 2003 that spelled the end to his hopes of staying in Iraq.

"With thousands fleeing the country in fear for their lives, not only is Iraq undergoing a major brain drain, the secular middle class - which has refused to be co-opted by the US occupation - is being decimated, with far-reaching consequences for the future of Iraq"

The BRussells Tribunal

A communications officer for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Baghdad, Farouq and his wife had planned to take a vacation in Lebanon for a few weeks before resuming work in the newly liberated country.

However, following the attack on the UN, violence escalated dramatically in Iraq and the international body pulled its foreign staff from the country.

"Things in Baghdad started to get more and more destructive. Prolonging our stay in Beirut ... we came to the decision that starting life over again in another country would be best for us," he said.

He finally settled in London.

Although the decision to leave Iraq has haunted him, he has no regrets, pointing to the declining state of leadership and management in the country.

Mismanagement, corruption

"Unfortunately because of the sectarian division ... the country is now in absolute chaos. I also don't believe that the country can be prosperous even with the reconstruction efforts of the local Iraqis because of the corruption and mismanagement of the country's funds."

Critics say mismanagement and
corruption are bleeding Iraq dry

Berlin-based Transparency International (TI), founded in 1993 to curb corruption in international transactions, warned in early 2005 that Iraqi reconstruction efforts were failing due to extensive corruption.

"If urgent steps are not taken, Iraq will not become the shining beacon of democracy envisioned by the Bush administration, it will become the biggest corruption scandal in history," the Global Corruption report of the non-profit, independent organisation found.

Farouq said he felt that Iraq was being "sucked dry" of its natural resources.

Trying to return

Then there are others who have bucked the trend and tried to enter Iraq rather than leave.

But for Leila Zaid*, a medical nuclear engineer, her hope of putting her expertise to good use in the country she was born in did not materialise.

"I design, repair and develop medical machines for treating and curing cancer patients," she told Aljazeera.net, explaining that her skills are very much in need in Iraq.

From her home in the Netherlands, where she has lived since the mid-1990s, she contacted officials at the Iraqi health ministry, hoping to contribute to the reconstruction effort.

After weeks of silence, she offered her services for free but was rebuffed.

After 18 months of trying to get Iraqi officials to listen to her, she says, she gave up and decided returning to Iraq would be too dangerous anyway.

She may have made the right choice.

Professionals targeted

The BRussells Tribunal, a committee of intellectuals and artists established in the tradition of the 1967 Vietnam War crimes Russell Tribunal, says hundreds of Iraqi professionals have been killed in Iraq since 2003.

"I lived through the Iraq-Iran war along with the two Gulf wars. I witnessed 13 years of crushing economic sanctions affecting everyone around me. But what's happening in Iraq now has, by far, surpassed that"

Omar Farouq, former UNDP communications officer in Baghdad

"With thousands fleeing the country in fear for their lives, not only is Iraq undergoing a major brain drain, the secular middle class - which has refused to be co-opted by the US occupation - is being decimated, with far-reaching consequences for the future of Iraq," the tribunal says.

The tribunal's website has published the names and vocations of at least 130 scientists, doctors and academics killed in the past three years.

The Iraqi Association of University Lecturers says 300 Iraqi academics have been killed since 2003.

An education ministry tally says 100 academics have left the country since the beginning of the war.

Imad Khadduri, a former Iraqi nuclear scientist and physics professor residing in Canada, believes the brain drain has sealed the future of the country's education system.

"With no one left to train Iraqis to teach and instruct a new generation, any hope of reconstruction in the country is lost.

"This is a great, great danger to Iraq's future," he said.

Put on hold

Alwan believes efforts to rebuild the country may have to be put on hold for the time being.

"Some of us might have more to offer to Iraq in a safer environment. We are not meant to prosper in war zones. Perhaps there will be a time when we can all return and help heal Iraq's wounds. Now is not that time."

Farouq has a more pessimistic outlook, saying he and his wife miss Baghdad as well as the family and friends left behind, but he would never consider returning.

"I lived through the Iraq-Iran war along with the two Gulf wars. I witnessed 13 years of crushing economic sanctions affecting everyone around me. But what's happening in Iraq now has, by far, surpassed that."

* Some of those interviewed requested their real names not be published for fear of reprisals against family members in Iraq