Iraq Violence Leading to Academic Brain Drain

With Salam Talib

Students at Iraq’s universities were to start the new school year this week – no small task given the daily barrage of violence that surrounds them.

“Our ministry is the Ministry of Higher Education, so we don’t have a military and we can’t make one,” ministry spokesman Basil al-Khatib explained.

He said the Ministry of Higher Education says the government is doing what it can to make school safe for students and faculty members.

“Our job is education,” he said. “All that we have are some campus guards. Until now, [they] have left the campuses safe, but outside the campus we can do nothing. Outside the campus, the students and the teachers can be killed while they are on their way home or even in their houses, and we cannot do anything about it.”

According to the ministry, at least 180 professors have been killed since February, when a mosque bombing in Samarra sent sectarian violence skyrocketing around the country.

“There are even more on the ground. We can’t really deny that,” conceded Basim al-Abdili, professor of sociology at Baghdad University. “But in most cases, teachers have been killed outside the university. Sometimes, they get killed while they are shopping.”

It’s difficult to tell who is killing Iraq’s academics. Nabil al-Tikriti, an assistant professor of history at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia, said it’s difficult to tell, but the killings are carried out in a different way from much of the violence.

“They’re very professional assassinations,” he said. “‘Professional’ meaning that they’re only going after the person they’re going to get. So they’re not dying in car bombs or sectarian killings where a checkpoint is being set up and everyone is being killed that goes through that checkpoint that’s from the wrong sectarian background. They’re not getting killed in those random ways. There are assassins that go up to them and kill them and only them.”

The killing of so many professors has compelled those still alive to flee the country. The Ministry of Higher Education estimates at least 3,250 have fled since February.

Abdili: “The biggest problem is to avoid a brain drain, and the only way to fight that is to make a safe environment where professors can stay. So we suggested that we should have the professors living on campus, or at least within a block of the campus.”

Students, too, need solutions to stay safe. Abdili says Iraq’s universities are now allowing students to transfer colleges on the basis of their ethnic group – so they can attend a university in a neighborhood whose residents have the same ethnic background.

“We have a strategy for the students,” he said. “The students that have been accepted in other universities where there is sectarian violence – where the local population is from a different group than their own – we will transfer them to a university which is safer than their own, even to the University of Baghdad, which is the most prestigious in the country. They’ll be in the exchange program, so they won’t be registered as students at that university. They’ll just study there.”

Analysts alternately blame militia organizations, Ba’athists, anti-Ba’athists, the Iranian secret service, the Israeli Mossad, and the U.S. military for the violence.

Tikriti says Americans should push their government for an investigation.

“Not a single one of these cases has been solved,” he said. “Is there a plot somewhere, and if so why, and if so can anything be done? This kind of dirty war is contributing to a breakdown of Iraqi society, and that in turn is contributing to the disaster that is Iraq that is also a disaster for Americans as well.”