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.
But his audience was more interested about his plans for Iraq's universities. Several students and professors stood up to ask him questions about how he would shield them from the chaos infecting Iraq. Maliki said he would ban pictures, leaflets, placards or other politically inspired materials from campuses "because the universities shall remain outside partisan politics or sectarian affiliation." He also promised that the government would "allocate funds to support students" and that professors and students would be protected.
"I hope you will continue your studies vigorously and not bow in front of those who want to paralyze our universities," Maliki told the gathering. "We regret what happened yesterday, but the government's reaction was strong."
In Kirkuk, Essam Muhedeen Arzad, a student at the College of Education, said Maliki's words calmed him. "I feel very sad for what has happened, particularly since we are in Iraq, which is the land of civilization and learning," Arzad said. "We need to capture those who are responsible for this act and bring them to justice to show the world that we are a nation of civilized people and will not accept such terrorist acts."
But for other college students, the abductions were a tipping point. For months, Faiha Abdul Jabar, in her second year studying science at Diyala University, said she was thinking of quitting her studies and staying home. A few hours after the assault, she was convinced.
"As a girl, I have a lot of fears from what happened yesterday," Abdul Jabar said. "Those armed men were able to storm into a governmental office and kidnap all the employees, and no one was able to save them or protect them. So what will happen to us if armed men stormed our college and kidnapped us?"
"The government is responsible for what is happening, and the government is responsible for making me lose this year," she added.
Zaman Adam Ali, who is studying English at Diyala University, also quit her studies on Tuesday, along with her two sisters, Eman and Hanan. "The government is responsible for destroying our future," Ali said.
Like almost every upheaval nowadays in Iraq, the kidnappings are being viewed through a prism of sectarianism. Muhammad Jamal, a law student at Tikrit University, sees the political disputes as an attempt by Shiite officials, hardened by sectarian divisions, to "lessen the importance" of the assaults. "This action is proof that we have a sectarian government," he said.
In a parking lot at Baghdad University on Wednesday, Lena Sadhi and Fatima Salim were standing next to a white car. Two hours earlier, they and other students had staged a protest. They heard that the Ministry of Higher Education was considering shutting down universities in the capital in the wake of the abductions, citing poor security. But they were hungry for education.
"The government doesn't want to continue our studies. That's why we protested," said Salim, who wore an aquamarine head scarf. "Why can people in the north and in the south be able to finish their studies and we can't?"
But Salim was also angry at the kidnappers. "They want our life to collapse," she said. "The only life we have is the university."
Special correspondents Muhanned Saif Aldin in Tikrit and Hasan Shammari in Diyala and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.