Violence and killings continue to drive Iraq's academics away

More than 300 academics have been killed in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, while more than 30,000 attacks against educational institutions have occurred.

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When the grenade attached to Zaid Abdul Mun'im's station wagon exploded in April in Baghdad, it signalled another worrying lapse into the violence that has haunted Iraqi academics for years.

Like hundreds of similar cases, the killing of the head of Al Mustansiriya University's molecular biology department was a reminder that despite promises of greater stability under an Iraqi-led government, the threat against Iraq's brain trust persists nearly a decade after the US-led invasion of Baghdad.

Iraq's education system, once the Arab world's Bait al Hikma, or House of Wisdom, has been debilitated by decades of war and sectarianism. The toppling in 2003 of Saddam Hussein's repressive Baath government only compounded violence against the country's educated class. According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 300 academics have been killed since 2003, while more than 30,000 attacks against educational institutions have occurred.

As a sign of the broader drain on Iraq's educated class, more than 20,000 physicians have fled and, according to the US Justice Department, more than 40 judges have been assassinated since 2008.

The ongoing violence makes scholars such as Dr Hadid Hussain, a faculty member at the Dubai Health Authority who used to work in Iraq's education ministry, reluctant to return to a country still mired in conflict. He said many scholars fear returning because of chronic instability. "There are so many things - the infrastructure, the security, the social context, the political context," he said.

For some, the fear of return is more personal. One linguistics professor in the Middle East whose visa will soon expire in her host country is despondent at the prospect of returning to Baghdad, where she was attacked after failing several intelligence officers on a test in her evening English class several years ago. "I received a letter with two long bullets inside it telling me 'we will kill you'," she recalls. "Now, when I see someone approaching and putting his hands behind his back, I think he is going to shoot me."

Scholars have been targeted for a variety of reasons. Iraqi scientists, particularly those in the military, were targeted by Israel and Iran during the 1990s as part of an effort to destroy Iraq's secret nuclear-development programme and destroy the country's weapons capabilities.

After 2003, political desires that saw Sunni and Shia groups competing for top government positions in the wake of Saddam Hussein's fall, vendettas against professors who were former Baath party members, as well as  killers who could be hired for as little as US$50 (Dh183) a day also contributed to the violence.

Munther Baker, a university professor who fled the country in 2005 to Jordan, blames the heightened violence on an ill-conceived US policy that disbanded Iraq's security forces under a "de-Baathification" effort shortly after the US occupation. "There was no system to protect the Iraqi people or the academia," he said.

During its so-called "golden age" 30 years ago, flowing oil revenue allowed public education to flourish in Baghdad and other urban centres such as Basra and Mosul. Free and compulsory, schools and universities had a nearly 100 per cent rate of enrolment, nearly perfect gender parity, and one of the lowest dropout and illiteracy rates in the Middle East.

By 2008, constant war coupled with the mismanagement of an outdated education system caused literacy to sink to 74 per cent and dropouts to increase by 20 per cent.

There are signs of progress, however. Rebuilding infrastructure and resupplying schools have steadily progressed since 2003 through agencies such as Unesco, USaid and Unicef, which have spent millions in government foreign aid donations restocking textbooks, laboratory equipment, and updating computer labs.

The Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq has also begun inviting private universities to fill in the financial and resource gaps that the federal education ministry has not been able to meet.

Still, the hardest task has been attracting scholars back, said Henry Jarecki, the chairman of the Iraq Scholar Rescue Fund, a US-non profit that awards grants to scholars to study abroad in order for them to escape conflict at home.

Speaking at a conference in Amman organised by the fund and the UK's University of York's Post-war Reconstruction and Development Unit several months ago, Mr Jarecki emphasised the need to move beyond merely persuading Iraqi scholars to return home.

"We are able to give the Iraqi scholars in the diaspora the ability to evaluate for themselves whether it's safe, how is it safe, what are the conditions under which I'm willing to return," he said. But the fund, and other groups like it, he said, have been pulled into a new and different set of questions- "namely, the general development of education in a conflict country".

For the war-weary professor seeking an academic safe haven, Kurdistan increasingly seems like the place to go.

Erbil, Sulaimani and other cities in northern Iraq are being billed as the gateway to the rest of the country for returning academics who feel uneasy teaching in a still-unstable south.

"Kurdistan is your home," Dlawer Abdul-Aziz Ala'Aldeen, Kurdistan's Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, told a roomful of professors at a scholar rescue fund conference in Amman several months ago. "You can come and be there until the rest of Iraq is ready for you."

Since 2003, the Kurdistan Regional Government has launched an ambitious project to overhaul university curriculum, training students to become multilingual, funding joint research initiatives, and attracting private universities from abroad. The American University in Iraq-Sulaimani, the British Royal University of Erbil, and the Lebanese French University in Erbil are but some of the 10 public and private universities that have been established in the region since 2003.

The aim, says Mr Dlawer, is to establish institutions that can produce a workforce desperately needed to fill the country's growing sectors of oil, tourism and industry. Owing to cooperation by the Kurdish military's forces during Operation Iraq Freedom in 2003, the northern region emerged relatively unscathed from from the US-led invasion Kurdistan's environment offers a sharp contrast to other cities of learning, which are still targeted by groups seeking to upset the country's stability.

Northern Iraq is a place where a people torn asunder by sectarian schisms, geographic divides and decades of war can find common ground. "Kurdistan can be considered as a laboratory of Iraq ," says Semia Saadaoui, a higher education specialist from Unesco who works on Iraq. "The wars tore people apart," she said, adding that the social fabric of Iraq is still mending. "This is a very good exercise in citizenship." -