Leader: Should we help rebuild Iraq's universities?

May 23, 2003

As conflict in Iraq recedes into memory, the country's universities are, nominally at least, open to students once more. But in an echo of Sarajevo, Pristina and Kabul, the system is in tatters, its fabric destroyed, faculty dispersed and students hesitant.

The impulse of the global community is to do something to help. But while previous reconstruction programmes were firmly rooted in a noble spirit of international academic interdependence, little is known about Iraq's universities over the past 30 years. It is certain, however, that, in common with the rest of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, no individual, no department, no discipline could prosper without Ba'athist approval.

Although education is a task the coalition is required to leave to the promised interim administration, it has declared its determination to weed out Ba'athist influences. Whether they resume their roles in most public utilities, even the police, is not an issue. But is that true for the universities, with their potential for shaping society for good or for bad?

In Kosovo, university reconstruction gave a purpose to the thousands of young (mainly) men who might otherwise be a focus for disaffection. In Afghanistan, women's empowerment after the Taliban years was sufficient justification. But the international academic community's intervention there, or earlier in Bosnia, has not been an unqualified success. While Iraq's universities remain tainted by association with the ousted regime, its faculty - rightly or wrongly - suspected of complicity in the development of weapons of mass destruction, extreme caution should prevail.

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