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 , Contributor to 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.

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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. "I can't remember dangerous incidents at that time," he says. "There were strong rules, and no demonstrations."

According to some professors and students, Sarhan's overtly sectarian style of activism was a slap in the face to all Sunnis at the university, Baathist or otherwise. In the new Iraq, one man's religious devotion can be another man's insult.

Pharmacy dean Mustafa Hitti, who is blamed by the Shiite students who rioted after Sarhan's death, fled from the campus during the rioting, with Shiite students alleging they had seen Hitti's bodyguards in an argument with Sarhan just before his murder. The dean, a Sunni, had asked the students not to hold a political gathering on campus, but Sarhan insisted on their "right to free expression," students say.

When the campus reopened several days later, some staff members still stayed away, complaining about the lack of adequate security. Several department heads "still refused to be on campus because they are afraid of some of students," Mohammed says.

An ideological shift is visible in the university's curriculum. While science courses are practically unchanged, humanities colleges have deleted "some subjects dealing with the former regime," Professor Mussawi says. Baathist studies seminars have given way to "new courses dealing with human rights, democracy, and globalization," he says.

Even science textbooks used to sometimes include sentences praising Saddam and the Baath Party. Students say their professors now tell them to tear these pages out.

Ali al-Adib, a member of parliament from the Shiite-led majority bloc, says new textbooks are on the way. He blamed the former regime for "creating ethnic divisions" and said that most of today's university administrators are "still infused with "Baathist culture."

Mr. Adib, who sits on a newly formed parliamentary committee for higher education, says he is confident that Iraqi education can once again be the best in the region. First, however, university curricula must be revised to reflect a "federal, democratic vision of Iraq," he says.

Over the next few months, as Iraq's politicians come to grips with drafting a permanent constitution, the definition of federalism is sure to be hotly debated. For some Shiite parties in the new government, "democratic federalism" is an old slogan that also means following Islamic law.

A Western adviser to the Ministry of Higher Education says that the most important step is to overcome the terrorist threat, which drains almost every kind of "productive investment" in Iraq. "If the country regained a sense of peace and normalcy, the fact that it would be a democracy would help it to regain stature in higher education," he says. "If there was no terrorism, the sky would be the limit."

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