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Iraq facing attrition of the middle class

Many wonder who will pick up pieces

BAGHDAD -- Artist Jabbar Muhaybis stood amid the ashes of Baghdad's storied literary bazaar. Bloodstained pages were scattered at his feet. A wooden crate, eerily reminiscent of a coffin, covered his head.

Muhaybis spread his arms wide and, in a symbolic gesture, sadly intoned from the darkness of his crate: "The light will not shine here again."

Days after a suicide bomber plowed his explosives-laden truck into the heart of Mutanabi Street, Baghdad's intellectual icons gathered to mourn a place that had been their inspiration and refuge through decades of invasion, war, and dictatorship.

Iraq's urban, educated, largely secular middle class had everything to gain from the fall of Saddam Hussein's oppressive and isolating regime. Four years later, it is on the way to being wiped out.

Writers, doctors, and university professors are hunted down and killed. Entrepreneurs and engineers are kidnapped for lucrative ransoms. And the symbols of Iraq's intellectual heritage -- its bookstores, libraries, museums, and archeological sites -- have been plundered and burned.

More than 200 Iraqi academics, 110 physicians, and 76 journalists have been killed since Hussein 's fall, according to figures compiled by government ministries and professional associations. Thousands of others have fled the country.

As the US-led occupation enters its fifth year, holdouts of middle-class society are starting to ask: Who will be left to pick up the pieces when the fighting is done?

Days after the Mutanabi Street blast, Nejah Hayiani, 61, gingerly pulled a blackened trouser leg from the rubble. A cellphone attached to the waistband told him it belonged to his dead brother, Mohammed.

"We didn't find bodies, we just found pieces of flesh," he said.

The brothers grew up on Mutanabi Street. Their father opened the Renaissance bookshop in 1957. Here, artists, poets and book lovers from all backgrounds converged to leaf through dusty tomes of Ottoman history, religious texts, and Shakespeare's sonnets, always watchful for the eavesdropping government informers who lurked in the alleys. From there they would wander over to the Shahbandar cafe for a glass of tea in a room swirling with lively debate.

Mohammed Hayiani took over the shop from his father. A nephew, Yehyia, opened a small store nearby, specializing in lawbooks. Now both shops are in ruins, their owners and staff slaughtered in the March 5 blast that killed more than 30 people and sent thousands of charred pages fluttering into the sky.

"The future is dark," Nejah Hayiani said. "If the thinkers are targeted and killed, who will lead Iraq? Only the ignorant."

Militants seeking to disrupt Iraqi society deliberately target the wealthiest professionals. But even those of lesser means frequently are caught in the bloodshed.

At the National Library and Archives, director Saad Eskander is trying to rebuild a collection that was burned and looted in the first weeks of the invasion. In a blog on the British Library's website, he describes the conditions that have turned the work of a librarian into a life-threatening job: gunshots through a window, bomb blasts, and battles in the streets.

Late last year, gunmen snatched businessman Fakhir Zihairi and held him, blindfolded, for 15 days, while they used his cellphone to negotiate a ransom with his family. The kidnappers' asking price was $150,000, but they settled for $7,000.

After he was freed, Zihairi immediately applied for a passport to leave Iraq. He sold his house, furniture, printing business, and his wife's gold jewelry in preparation for the move to Cairo, Egypt. He has no intention of coming back.