Iraq's Tensions Spill onto Campus ; Up to 50 Professors Have Been Killed, UN Reports. but Rebuilding Includes 4,000 New Staff at 20 Universities

By Neil MacDonald Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, May 27, 2005 | Go to article overview

Iraq's Tensions Spill onto Campus ; Up to 50 Professors Have Been Killed, UN Reports. but Rebuilding Includes 4,000 New Staff at 20 Universities


Neil MacDonald Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


When Iraq's new government officially took power earlier this month, Shiite students at Baghdad University celebrated. But after the jubilation ended, the main organizer of the festivities, Dawa party activist Masar Sarhan, was killed.

Mr. Sarhan, a pharmacy student, was shot on his way home and is apparently one of the latest casualties of tensions between Sunni and Shiite students at Iraq's 20 universities and 47 technical colleges.

According to a recent United Nations report, nearly 50 academics have been assassinated in Iraq over the past two years. A US official says the number is closer to 100, but added that the pattern of the killings is not clear, with "terrorism, general thuggery, pay back, and de-Baathification" all playing a role.

Thursday, professor Moussa Salum, a deputy dean at Baghdad's Mustansiriya University, was killed along with three of his bodyguards, Reuters reported.

But while the steady violence on campuses has been a constant worry for students and faculty alike, there are signs that Iraqis are making strides to reclaim the country's "long, proud tradition of distinguished universities," according to Jairam Reddy, the author of the UN report, who lives in Amman, Jordan.

According to the UN report, the total enrollment at Iraqi universities is more than 250,000, 42 percent of whom are female students. Forty percent of the country's learning institutions are now under construction - many suffered looting in the wake of the US- led invasion.

The Ministry of Finance has upped its allocation for higher education from $40 million in 2003 to nearly $70 million this year, according to the report. Backed by UN agencies and the World Bank, Iraqi universities have hired more than 4,000 new staff.

Although salaries are low by international standards, many professors who left under the old regime have returned to Iraq's universities, in some cases bringing much needed foreign expertise.

With help from foreign donors, universities are gradually rebuilding their labs and libraries, which were neglected for years. Groups of students, meanwhile, are gaining exposure to the outside world through American-funded study trips to the United States and other countries.

But while welcoming academic freedoms, some professors say that too many student groups are taking advantage of the country's new "free expression" as an excuse for politicized provocations.

With professors already feeling threatened, a new sense of Shiite ascendancy after the Jan. 30 elections raised the temperature between Shiite students and their Sunni counterparts, some of whom still express affection for Saddam Hussein and his former Baath regime.

"The university as a whole should be kept out of political struggles," says Baghdad University professor Nabil Mohammed. "It's not a place to put pictures calling for this party or that."

Professor Mohammed says he was never fond of Baathist apparatchiks either, but the campus was always safe under the old regime. …

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