Iraqi Student's Killing Deepens a Divide
Shiite-Sunni Conflict Sharply Evident in Campus Protests Against Former Baathists

By Caryle Murphy and Khalid Saffar
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 1, 2005

BAGHDAD -- Like many students, Masar Sarhan took full advantage of the new freedoms that swept over Baghdad University two years ago. The pharmacy major joined the Dawa party and became a tireless campus activist for the long-suppressed religious and political rights of Shiite Muslims.

So it was not unusual for Sarhan to organize a celebration of the new, Shiite-led national government of Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, a Dawa party stalwart. During the May 2 campus event, however, Sarhan exchanged heated words with a staffer from the office of the dean of the pharmacy school. Some accounts say the two men parted angrily; others say the tiff was resolved amicably.

Whatever happened, Sarhan, 24, was gunned down a few hours later while sitting in his parked car a few blocks from his home, according to family members and friends. One of them said the gunman emerged from another car and pumped two bullets into Sarhan's neck and one into his head.

The next day, Sarhan's fellow students, most of them Shiites, demonstrated at the university's Bab al-Muaddam campus. Assuming that Sarhan's Shiite activism had made him a target, they blamed former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party for Sarhan's death and demanded a more aggressive purge of onetime Baathist professors, most of whom are Sunni Muslims.

The march turned into a riot when some participants -- described by several witnesses as non-student "outsiders" -- sacked administrative offices, overturning furniture and breaking windows. Police officers were called. Classes were canceled for the rest of the week as students pressed their demands amid large posters that captured their sentiments: "A Baathist Professor Means a Backward Society" and "Debaathification is Necessary for Building a New Iraq."

"There is no doubt that the Baathists" killed Sarhan, said Salem Ahmad Azzar, 24, a fourth-year student and protester. "There are many who did not like the idea of the celebration because they are Baathists, and they don't like Jafari and the new Iraq. There are many of them everywhere, as we can see every day with the car bombs and explosions and killing of police and National Guard. Who is doing all that? Is it only [Abu Musab] Zarqawi? No, it is the Baathists who lost power and want to come back."

Sarhan's still-unsolved slaying and its aftermath highlight the deep divide between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraqi society, which is especially evident when it comes to the matter of how to treat those who -- willingly or not -- were once part of Hussein's ruling party.

As Iraq's preeminent educational center, Baghdad University was a Baathist redoubt in Hussein's coercive one-party state. Professors and students had to register as party members. Also, the Sunni Arab minority that was favored by Hussein's government was overrepresented among the student body.

In the initial days of the U.S. occupation, many university faculty members were fired because of their links to the Baath Party. Later, Iraq's interim constitution, written under the U.S. occupation, established the Supreme National Commission for De-Baathification to deal with cases on an individual basis and according to set guidelines. The group's work has been controversial. Sunni Arabs widely regard it as unfair and partisan; many Shiites see it as ineffective.

These divergent views were evident at Baghdad University after Sarhan's killing. Jaafer Kaabi, a chemistry professor and a Shiite, told al-Mada newspaper that "the university has reinstalled many Baathist professors, which has enraged the student ranks."

But Mustafa Hiti, a Sunni who is dean of the pharmacy school, disputed that assertion in an interview. At least as far as his school is concerned, he said, "five Baathist professors . . . were reinstated with the approval of the De-Baathification Commission, but not to their original posts."

As for himself, Hiti said, "I am not a Baathist, nor was I in the past."

Taher K. Al Bakaa, who served as minister of higher education in the interim administration of the former prime minister, Ayad Allawi, and who is now a member of parliament, said in an interview that 1,630 faculty members nationwide had to resign because of their Baathist pasts. But 1,380 were reinstated with the concurrence of the De-Baathification Commission.

"Not even one was brought back outside [its] guidelines," said Bakaa, a secular-oriented Shiite. "They had to reinstate them because they had to work according to their own regulations."

Those rules allow onetime Baathists to return to their place of employment -- though not necessarily to the same position -- if they renounce the party, their professional colleagues do not object to their return and they are "not war criminals," Bakaa said.

Bakaa, a former president of Baghdad's Mustansiriya University, said that in an attempt to create a peaceful, nonsectarian atmosphere on campuses, Iraqi university presidents agreed at a national conference in March 2004 to ban religious and political activities on school grounds.

"Unfortunately, many presidents and deans did not respect this declaration," he said. "So when I became minister of higher education, I relieved many university presidents."

Bakaa said he fired one president because he had asked Christian students to wear head scarves during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan; another was fired because he had turned the university into a center for a Sunni Arab political party; a third was let go because he had urged university staff members to support Moqtada Sadr, a Shiite cleric, at a time when Sadr's militia was fighting U.S. troops.

Sarhan's slaying also underscores the general lawlessness that has contributed to the killing of more than 65 Iraqi university professors in the past two years, according to Bakaa. The victims were from across the political spectrum; some were not politically active at all. All were slain off-campus.

Most recently, Moussa Salum, a deputy dean at Mustansiriya University, was killed last Thursday along with three of his bodyguards, the Reuters news agency reported.

Bakaa said some educators were killed by U.S. military forces "by mistake." As for the rest of the slayings, "not a single one has been solved and no one has been charged," he said. "The state is not able to protect deans physically and legally."

The former minister said he believed that Sarhan's death was "exploited for political ends" by "some parties" who "blew this event out of proportion and blamed it on the Baathists."

Three days after Sarhan's killing, the president of Baghdad University, Musa Jawad Musawi, said in an interview that "there was incitement and I believe even sabotage" at the campus demonstration that turned violent. "The whole event started with a celebration for the formation of Jafari's government inside the campus. Some weren't happy with that. That is all."

For Iraqi educators striving to make their campuses into venues of tolerant, democratic debate, Sarhan's death was a setback.

Hiti said he was extremely upset by the killing of Sarhan, whom he said he had treated "like my son." Sarhan's childhood friend, Danny Ghalib, confirmed that the Sunni dean and his Shiite student had been close.

Asmaa Abdulla, 23, a student who attended the celebration for Jafari, recalled Sarhan as "very involved in Shiite politics. He always wanted to promote Shiite religious occasions. But we are not all Shiites, so why should anyone promote sectarianism? This is not right.

"But I still don't approve of violence and killing," Abdulla added. "We are all Iraqis and should learn to live together."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company