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Iraq's deadly brain drain
Iraq’s university professors claim they have been the victims of targeted assassinations since 2003. Many cases go uninvestigated, but the sheer scale of the attacks has driven thousands of academics out Dr. Khalid Nasir al-Miyahi is just one in a long list of academics assassinated in Iraq. Al-Miyahi was a professor at Basra University and the only neurosurgeon in the southern Iraqi city. He was kidnapped on March 9, 2008. The next day, his bullet-ridden body was found on the streets of Basra.
The evening he disappeared, the professor had received a phone call from someone asking him to return to his clinic for an urgent medical issue, a colleague told the Associated Press.
“Today, there is an ongoing campaign to destroy Iraqi intellectual resources,” says Wathab al-Sadi, an Iraqi professor living in Paris. According to al-Sadi, academics are being targeted irrespective of religion or politics. Both Shias and Sunnis are under threat. “Their only common denominator is that all are university professors,” he notes.
“It is clear that academics are being specifically targeted,” says Brendan O’Malley, author of a 2007 UN report on higher education. But the exact scale of the killing is hard to arrive at. Isam al-Rawi, a geology professor and head of the Association of Iraqi Lecturers, compiled figures about the death of fellow professors until he himself was killed in 2006.
But according to British Iraqi ophthalmologist, Dr. Ismael Jalili, who has been tracking death rates among Iraqi professors, 380 university academics and doctors were killed from 2003 to 2006 alone. The University of al-Mustansiriya in Baghdad, Basra University and the University of Mosul are among the most dangerous universities. In one suicide bombing in January 2007, 70 professors, students and university employees were killed at Al-Mustansiriya University.
While academics decry a concerted campaign to destroy the Iraqi intelligencia, O’Malley says factional violence on campuses could have raised death rates in Iraq’s academic community.
Politically motivated assassinations
“Today, we are witnessing an endless series of assassinations,” says Ibtissem Yakoub, the widow of Dr. Youssef Salman, an engineering professor at Basra University, who was killed in 2006.
When driving home after a day’s teaching, unknown gunmen shot her husband. For Yakoub, there is no doubt Salman was targeted. “He was driving with three other colleagues. They shot him and the others were spared,” she told FRANCE 24 in a phone interview from Basra.
“At the beginning, we believed professors were killed because they were former Baathists or scientists suspected of working on arms programmes,” says al-Sadi. “At the start of the war, some scientists were specifically targeted in US raids,” he says.
As a Sunni head of the department of engineering at Basra University, a Shia-dominated institution, Salman fits the profile of an academic who might have been targeted for his community’s past association with Saddam Hussein’s regime. Born in the Sunni stronghold of Tikrit, the former Iraqi dictator drew most of his trusted aides from the Sunni community. Under Saddam, the community enjoyed preferential treatment, often at the cost of the Shia majority.
But Yakoub, a former employee of a petro-chemical factory, denies that her late husband had any political links.
On the other hand, there have also been cases of Shia academics being targeted in Sunni-majority cities and universities.
Amal Maamlaji was an IT professor at the al-Mansour University in Baghdad when the US invaded Iraq in 2003. A native of the Shia holy town of Kerbala, Maamlaji had lived most of her life abroad, and quickly got involved in human rights – particularly women’s rights - work in Baghdad.
According to her husband, Athir Haddad, Maamlaji did not believe she would be attacked for her views. “She kept saying ‘I am a nationalist, I’m not a party politician, nobody will want to harm me’,” he told FRANCE 24 in a phone interview from Baghdad. In 2004, Maamlaji, who had started working for the ministry of municipalities and public works, was killed in an ambush during a traffic jam. “160 bullets were found in her vehicle,” said Haddad, “you can imagine the massacre.”
The police case was quickly closed, according to her husband. But when Haddad started investigating her death, the police “threatened” him, he claims. “They told me to keep ‘my mouth shut’,” he said, admitting that even today he still fears for his life. According to him, Maamlaji had criticized Islamic fundamentalism during press interviews.
Killing campaign against academics?
As many of the cases in Iraq go uninvestigated, speculations about the killings abound. Al-Sadi is one of the several Iraqi academics who believes there is a concerted campaign to eradicate Iraq’s intellectual resources. He heads the French International Committee for Solidarity with Iraqi Academics, which pushes for greater protection for academics.
Indeed, in Jan. 2008, Iraqi police arrested a gang of militants who specialised in killing and intimidating doctors, academics and judges, an unnamed Interior Ministry official told the Associated Press.
While refusing to speculate on the perpetrators of the killings, al-Sadi reports that professors have blamed foreign countries such as Israel, Iran or the US for the killing campaigns. “Some accuse Israel of wanting to weaken Iraq, while others blame Iran for targeting members of the scientific community,” he says, “It is believed that someone wants to prevent the emergence of Iraq as an important regional power.”
But O’Malley says such allegations are impossible to verify. “Sunni extremists are killing Shia academics while Shia extremists are killing Sunni academics. Some people are killing Baathists while others are targeting non-Baathists. When all this is happening at once, the cumulative effect may give the impression of a killing campaign against academics.”
In response to the killings, at least 3,000 academics have fled the country in response to the killings and attendance among students in Baghdad’s universities has slumped by two-thirds, according to O’Malley’s report. Pressure is high on the academics who stay. Maalmaji’s widower, Addad, who is also a university professor, says he would leave Baghdad if it weren’t for his daughters who are studying at university. “They have made friends here,” he says, “you know how children are.”