BAGHDAD — After Saddam Hussein's overthrow, university president Taher al-Bakaa gathered his staff, and promised them a university free from oppression and fear. But recently a dispute between a Sunni professor and a group of Shiite students turned into a demonstration that closed the campus for three days. Now, Dr. Bakaa says, religious factions are hijacking the university, and he fears for his life.
"If we let the parties interfere with the universities, it will be a bloody situation," says Al Bakaa. "Many people are in such fear they are giving up their post, including me. I am in danger."
A rise of religious fundamentalism is terrorizing the Iraqi academic community, and threatening to roll back the gains in academic freedom made by university presidents and their advisers from the United States since the end of the war.
University staff and students say religious groups are imposing themselves on campus, dividing students and threatening professors. The newly formed Council of University Presidents voted to postpone the first-ever national student elections which had been slated for March 15, for fear of violence.
"They don't want elections because the students are worried the religious fanatics will influence how the students vote," says John Agresto, US senior adviser to the Ministry of Higher Education. "The situation has become explosive."
Under Saddam's regime, religious groups had a slim presence on campuses, and students were all officially represented by one Baathist group - the National Union for Iraqi Students - which was overseen by Uday Hussein, son of the ousted leader.
But shortly after the war, students say Shiite and Sunni groups began appearing on campus under the guise of democratic-sounding student parties, such as "Students for Tomorrow." They roam campus like "morality police" telling girls to cover their heads, breaking up couples, pressuring professors to divide classes by gender, and using incendiary language that creates divisions, some students say.
Exacerbating the situation, say university presidents, is the appointment by the Iraqi governing council of a minister of higher education who is openly a member of a Sunni Islamist religious party and who has been appointing members of his own religious group into high-ranking university positions.
In one of his first acts in September, the minister, Zeyad Abdul-Razzaq Mohammed Aswad, fired several democratically elected university presidents and tried to replace them with members of his own religious party.
"We have a minister who is a religious fanatic," says a Baghdad University dean. "Every day I get a call from his office to remove a certain book that his campus spies have seen. Or to help a student who is a member of his religious group. It is the same people from the Baath Party, but now they are a religious group." [Editor's note: The original version of the story included the dean's name.]
The minister, a former professor and petroleum engineer, declined several requests for an interview.
Dr. Agresto and the US-led coalition say they are aware of the complaints about the minister, but that matters such as religion on campus are considered internal and are left to the Iraqi university administrators to handle.
Agresto says he reinstated all the presidents the minister fired - except Baghdad University's president - and he drew up an official "Code of Conduct," which emphasizes academic freedom and calls coercion or intimidation by a student or staff member "grounds for dismissal." All the presidents and the minister have agreed to sign it.
But the US advisers also feel uneasy about voicing opposition to fundamentalists. Agresto says he has heard that religious fanatics are overrunning the schools outside Baghdad, such as Mosul University, and the presidents are too cowed to stop them. The roads are deemed too dangerous for Agresto and his staff to visit Mosul. "We sent an aide to the minister up there with a Kalashnikov to investigate," he says.
At Baghdad University students say they are worried about the problems on campus, but believe they are mostly being caused by radical students, taking advantage of the overall climate of anarchy and lawlessness in Iraq to scare students into listening to them.
Shayma Hasan, a 23-year-old computer science student, says a male student recently brought a megaphone to the parking lot where hundreds of students were chatting.
"He said, 'You girls gotta stop wearing short skirts or you're going to hell,' " she recalls. "The students know you can come in and kill someone, and no one will stop you because there's no authority. We're always asking the religious groups to stay outside the campus, because we don't want problems brought in here, but they come in anyway."
Some of the students involved, however, say this is their expression of religious freedom. At Al Mustansiriyah University, Mohammed al-Jorany heads a group called the "Independent Students Association," which has 162 members and recently held a seminar on democracy. The group is funded by the Shiite religious group Al Howser.
"We don't order women to wear the hijab. We just tell them it is better for them as Islamic women," says Mr. Jorany.
Some observers say that the surge in religious activity stems from Iraqi students reveling in free expression after decades of repression under Hussein.
But others suggest fundamentalism may answer a need. Most students have grown up with a strong authoritative leader and are shaken by the chaos and lack of governance in Iraq. They are perhaps gravitating toward religious groups out of a need for stability.
"Now, having overthrown the tyrant, they want to turn to something to regulate their lives," says Ali al-Rafaie, president of the University of Technology, which also canceled its elections. Eventually, he says, "they will learn to be free people."
Others, however, see a more frightening pattern in which Islamic parties are stepping into a power vacuum, preparing for the departure of US troops when they will make a broader push for an Islamic state.
Sarmeed Saadiddeen, a medical student at the College of Medicine at al Mustansiriyah University, says the troubles on his campus began in June, when a Shiite group formed an organization benevolently called "Doctors Tomorrow."
He says it called for unity, but made distinctions between Sunnis and Shiites, and passed out literature denouncing music and advocating medical research tied to the Koran.
"They want to impose what they believe on us. I am Muslim, but I also watch American movies and read about world politics. They say, 'No. You don't need anything other than Islam.' "
"The Student Union should be fighting for more books, organizing on-campus lecturers to speak on human rights and other topics, and working to improve student housing. I am a medical student and we don't have any books - only photocopies. This is what we need."