At Baghdad University, Finals Not the Hardest Test

Students walk near the site of a mortar shell attack that wounded five students and a teacher at al-Sadiq University for Islamic Studies in Baghdad.
Students walk near the site of a mortar shell attack that wounded five students and a teacher at al-Sadiq University for Islamic Studies in Baghdad. (By Karim Kadim -- Associated Press)

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By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 6, 2006

BAGHDAD -- The letter was slipped under the dean's office door, in an envelope slightly bulging from the AK-47 bullet tucked inside.

"You have to understand our circumstances. We cannot perform well on the exam because of the problems in Baghdad. And you have to help," the letter began, said its recipient, A.M. Taleb, dean of the College of Sciences at Baghdad University. "If you do not, you and your family will be killed."

It's finals time in Iraq. Black-clad gunmen have stormed a dormitory to snatch students from their rooms. Professors fear failing and angering their pupils. Administrators curtailed graduation ceremonies to avoid convening large groups of people into an obvious bombing target. Perhaps nowhere else does the prospect of two months' summer vacation -- for those who can afford it, a chance to flee the country -- bring such unbridled relief.

"Every 30 minutes our families call us to make sure we're all right," said Istabraq Muhammed, 21, an architecture student in her third year at the university. "They are very worried about us."

The morning before Thaer Abdul Naba took his last exam in accounting for oil engineers, a gunfight erupted outside his off-campus dorm in the northern Baghdad neighborhood of Bab al-Muadham. For much of the day, he huddled with a group of students in a commons room, away from the windows and the unknown assailants. Unable to study until late at night, he said, he was too tired to concentrate when it was time for the test.

"One of the students was wounded as he was hit with a bullet in his leg. If you go inside the dorm now, you'll find bullet holes and broken windows," said Abdul Naba, 26, a junior. "They even shot the laundry that was hanging outside."

On the tree-shaded, stone-slab courtyard of Iraq's most prestigious university, with 70,000 undergraduates and 10,000 graduate students, students still stroll to class and chat idly with friends. They sit at an outdoor cafe, relaxing after their exams and exchanging goodbyes. Within the concrete blast walls and barbed-wire barriers, the campus exists in relative calm compared with more overtly violent areas of Baghdad.

Under former president Saddam Hussein, university officials required that students study the political ideology and martial history of the ruling Baath Party. After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, those classes disappeared, replaced on the curriculum with courses about democracy and human rights.

"From the point of view of exchanging or expressing opinions, there is no comparison. Back then, there was no possibility to express your views in any way," said the school's president, Mosa al-Mosawe. "But in terms of security, during the Baath regime it was much better."

Mosawe spoke on Thursday, the day Baghdad University's chief of security was assassinated by gunmen outside his home. About 50 university staff members have been killed since the invasion, more than half of roughly 90 university employees killed across Iraq, said Mosawe. Other calculations of slain professors are even higher: An antiwar organization called the Brussels Tribunal lists 250 names.

Some professors say the killings are motivated by the same sectarian rivalries between Shiite and Sunni Muslims that take Iraqi lives every day and are intertwined with the country's political struggles. Regardless of the reason, the killings are inspiring an exodus of professors from the university system.

At Baghdad University, 300 staff members have requested one-year leaves of absence to flee the violence, and about half of all professors will spend the summer out of the country or in Iraq's more peaceful northern region, Mosawe said.


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