In Iraqi Colleges, Fear for an Already Shrunken Realm

Students enter Baghdad University to hear an address by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the wake of a mass abduction at a higher education agency Tuesday.
Students enter Baghdad University to hear an address by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the wake of a mass abduction at a higher education agency Tuesday. (Pool Photo By Hadi Mizban Via Getty Images)
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 16, 2006

BAGHDAD, Nov. 15 -- Over the past six months, Professor Amir Hassan's world has been shrinking. Two colleagues were assassinated, one with his family. Another was kidnapped. Two received death threats, forcing one to flee to Jordan. And since September, six other senior members of his political science department at Baghdad University have left Iraq.

Now, Hassan, a slim, carefully groomed man with a snowy mustache and owlish glasses, expects his world to condense even more. On Wednesday, in words filled with deep foreboding, he said the mass abduction of scores of people from a government educational agency a day earlier would persuade more academics to flee, further weakening a crucial, if fragile, pillar of Iraq.

"We are living in the killing stage," Hassan said, seated behind a neat desk in a spare, dimly lit office. "We know that our chance of dying is now greater than our chance of staying alive."

The emotions unleashed by one of the biggest mass kidnappings since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion reverberated across Iraq on Wednesday, splitting the cabinet along sectarian lines and spawning a heated dispute over how many men were abducted. But the most profound effect of what many Iraqis view as a national calamity was felt in university halls and campuses across Iraq. Here, the abductions highlighted the plight of academics and an educational system besieged by sectarian tensions, lawlessness and government ineffectiveness.

"What happened in Baghdad yesterday was a catastrophe that could destroy the entire educational process," said Fikret Mahmoud Omar, an instructor at a technical college in the northern city of Kirkuk. "It shows that the process in Iraq is on the verge of collapse and confirms that terrorists and militias are the ones who are in control of events."

By late Wednesday night, it was still unclear how many Iraqis remained captive after Tuesday's brazen daylight raid on a Ministry of Higher Education building in Baghdad's upscale Karrada neighborhood. About 80 gunmen, dressed in blue police commando uniforms and driving police vehicles with no license plates, handcuffed, blindfolded and carried off male employees and visitors. They locked women up in rooms before driving away in their official-looking convoy.

Less than 24 hours later, captives were being freed, an unusual development in a nation where kidnap victims are often held for months or killed. A Ministry of Higher Education spokesman, Bilal al-Khatib, said about 70 of as many as 150 kidnap victims had been released. But Ali al-Dabbagh, a spokesman for the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said about 40 had been set free and only a few remained captive. Higher Education Minister Abed Thiyab, a prominent Sunni Muslim, declared he would suspend his "membership in the Maliki government until all hostages are released."

Even as politicians bickered, they voiced a common belief that the assault could have serious repercussions in educational institutions across the country. Already, Khatib said, at least 160 professors have been killed since the U.S.-led invasion and more than 1,500 have fled the country, part of the growing exodus of middle-class professionals. Hassan, the professor, said he believes the kidnappers targeted the agency Tuesday because it granted scholarships to Iraqi professors and students applying to study abroad.

"This was the means to have contact with other countries. So if they cut this, they cut life," said Hassan, who said he himself had no plans to flee Iraq.

On Wednesday, Maliki visited Baghdad University, one of Iraq's most prestigious academic institutions, to show his commitment to bolstering security and stopping sectarian strife.

Addressing students and professors, he described the kidnappers as "worse than extremists" and said the attack was a product of militia rivalries. Although no group has asserted responsibility, many people say they believe Shiite Muslim militias -- especially the Mahdi Army, linked to cleric and political kingmaker Moqtada al-Sadr -- were behind the abductions. Shiite groups have staged previous mass kidnappings and are widely believed to have infiltrated Iraq's security forces.

"We will chase those who did this ugly criminal act," Maliki promised.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company