Twenty years ago, Iraq's universities were among the strongest in the Middle East. They were modelled on the British system and excelled in science and technology. Since then, war and decades of political repression have taken their toll, while international sanctions starved them of resources and access to the networks that are the lifeblood of academic life.
Perverted by Saddam Hussein's military ambitions, and diluted by his political manoeuvring, Iraq's university system was a basket case before the US-led intervention in 2003. The chaos that followed nearly dealt a death blow, and the interim Government has now appealed to the international community for help. For the UK, that appeal was hardly necessary: the British Council was early in the field with material help and opportunities for Iraqi academic leaders to rebuild their links with British universities. With assassinations and kidnappings rife, it is a difficult time to do more, but the privations demand more than isolated interventions and well-intentioned bilateral agreements between universities.
The key to international aid has to be a clear vision for Iraq's universities. When resources are scarce, should they be used to prop up the educationally and financially questionable institutions set up by the former regime? Should support depend on universities remaining secular and coeducational? There is a vision, but it has been crafted by an interim government in which the influence of the Shia majority is limited. The answers will have to come - and quickly - from the politicians who will ultimately guide Iraq to democracy.
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