Death to those who dare to speak out

Even under Saddam Hussein, Saad Jawad spoke his mind. The mild-mannered, political science professor was one of only four people who dared to sign a petition asking Iraq's dictator for a more democratic form of government.

Today, Dr. Jawad still speaks out. But like other university professors across Iraq, he is increasingly afraid that saying what he thinks - or saying anything political at all - could get him killed. "To tell the truth, at the time of Saddam Hussein, we used to speak to our students freely," says Jawad. "Ministers, for example, were criticized all the time. But now, a lot of people are not willing to say these kinds of things because of fear."

Over the past year, Baghdad's intelligentsia has seen a wave of killings: scientists, professors, and academics, executed in carefully planned assassinations.

It's hard to estimate the toll, but US occupation authorities put the number of "intellectuals and professionals" assassinated at up to five a month, not counting another five to 10 monthly attempts.

By some counts, as many as 40 of Iraq's leading scientists and university professors have been killed since last April. The Iraqi police say 1,000 of the country's intellectuals may have been executed in the past year, but such a high figure seems doubtful, especially as rumors abound. At least one mathematics professor who was reported by local news outlets to have been killed turned out to be very much alive.

But regardless of the numbers, there is one sure victim: free speech. On the campuses of Iraq's universities, the killings have created a climate of fear so pervasive that many professors flatly refuse to speak about them, or even to admit they are happening.

"It is limiting our freedom of speech, and that's why you find people from London and Paris, and the Gulf countries, speaking out on Iraqi politics more readily than people in Iraq," says Jawad.

The killings are having another effect: brain drain. Several months ago, a colleague of Jawad's received a death threat, scrawled on a scrap of paper, slipped under his garage door. Such threats are common in Baghdad these days, but Jawad's friend didn't wait to find out if it was genuine or not. He took it to the minister of higher education and the head of the university, both of whom told him there was nothing they could do. Terrified, he fled the country, leaving a junior professor to take over his classes.

"These were the best who were assassinated, the best minds," says Dr. Ismail Mahmoud Muhammad Issa, assistant dean of students at Mustansiriya's College of Law. "This is the reason why so many scientists are leaving the country."

Inside their offices, professors hint darkly at a range of possible culprits, from disgruntled students to Baathist insurgents to American forces themselves.

"They might kill every brain in this country, and we are next in line," says Salah Aliwi, deputy dean of the college of sciences at Mustansiriya. "But we don't know how, or when."

Mr. Aliwi has every reason to be afraid: The killings began with the assassination of his predecessor, Falah Hussein, in May 2003. "He was sitting right here in this chair," says Aliwi. "And to this day, we don't know why he was killed."

Next came Dr. Muhammad al-Rawi, president of Baghdad University, on July 27. After the methodical assassinations of several more top scientists and engineers, professors began muttering in private that Israel or the CIA was killing all of Iraq's scientists to stop the country from rebuilding its nuclear weapons program. Some believe it might be neighboring Iran, Turkey, or Syria, for the same reason. Others blame Baathists trying to silence scientists who might know too much about Hussein-era weapons of mass destruction.

"We don't know why, but there is a deliberate effort to kill scientists," says Aliwi. "As a teacher and as a scientist here, I think that they want to stop us from learning."

But then, in late January, came the killing of Abdul-Latif al-Mayah, a middle-aged political science professor at Mustansiriya. Dr. Mayah had been interviewed the night before he was killed on the Arabic-language satellite television station Al Jazeera. A human rights advocate and longtime pro-democracy activist, he spoke in favor of holding elections in Iraq by June 30, the date set for America's planned handover of political power to Iraqis. Less than 24 hours later, he was gunned down on his way to the university.

To many Iraqi intellectuals, Mayah's killing seemed like a signal to keep their mouths shut on controversial topics.

"I know that he was a quiet man, a peaceful man, honest," says Dr. Riyadh Aziz Hadi, dean of the Faculty of Political Science at Baghdad University. "But he had political activities, talked to politicians from time to time, and he would give his opinion about everything when they asked him."

Dr. Hadi, like several other professors, now refuses to give interviews on Arabic-language television channels. When asked why, he's afraid even to say. "Now we have freedom of speech," he says cautiously, "but no security."

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