updated 9/29/2008 6:11:51 PM ET 2008-09-29T22:11:51

Iraq will allow doctors to carry guns to protect themselves after hundreds have been targeted and killed since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, the government said Monday.

The government also ordered the Health Ministry to begin building high security residential compounds around hospitals for physicians to live in, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Cabinet said in a statement.

"By government decree, the Cabinet has ordered that each doctor be allowed to carry one weapon to protect himself," the statement said.

About 8,000 doctors fled Iraq since the 2003 war and the government has been trying to persuade many of them to return. The moves appear to be a confidence-building measure to encourage doctors to come back and to provide them with protection from kidnap gangs that often target professionals.

Loss of doctors has crippled system
The loss of so many health care professionals has further crippled a medical care system plagued by corruption, mismanagement and a lack of equipment and drugs.

Since 2003, at least 620 Iraqi medical professionals, including 134 doctors, have been killed and many more threatened, according to the Health Ministry.

Iraqi doctors raised the idea of carrying guns during a June conference in Baghdad to discuss the dangers they faced, according to Adel Muhsin, a top Health Ministry official.

A surgeon at a hospital in the northwestern city of Tal Afar, Ahmed Sabeeh, said the right to carry a gun would make no difference to him.

"Such decision came very late — after dozens of doctors were killed," he said. "I think it will not be of help because I do not know how to shoot, and have never used a gun. I don't think I will carry a weapon."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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