Iraqi Kurds turn Saddam's prisons into classrooms

January 27, 2006

Kurdish students are flocking to enrol at universities in Northern Iraq, where the autonomous provincial government has made higher education a priority.

In Saddam's time, a solitary university in Sulaimaniya served the region's 4 million people. Even that was closed by the Baathist regime and its students barred from studying elsewhere in Iraq.

Now Dohuk University is one of four higher education institutions in the region, literally built on the infrastructure formerly used against Kurds.

Speaking from his office, rector Asmat Khalid said: "This is the room of the former headquarters of the Baath party. Now it is my room.

"The college of medicine used to be an army base where people were trained to shoot people. Now people are trained to treat patients. The college of law was formerly a prison and execution centre run by the secret police.

There are still some bullet holes."

Dohuk is expanding rapidly, with a new campus and dormitories. More than 50,000 students study in the region's four universities and a fifth is being built.

Safeen Deziyee, spokesman for the Kurdish regional government, said that higher education was part of a policy for developing the country.

"Education is important, as Kurdistan never had the opportunity to develop its needs. We are trying to develop a new generation and turn people into producers and not just consumers. We also have many Kurds returning from exile abroad who want facilities to continue their children's education."

All four universities are modelled on the British system, although this could change as a result of growing US financial support. Kurdish universities are also building links with European counterparts. The University of Dortmund in Germany has developed a partnership with several Kurdish universities.

But university administrators accuse Baghdad of not giving enough assistance. Kurdish rectors are still waiting for a reply to a joint letter calling for the Iraqi higher education ministry to deal directly with its Kurdish equivalent and bolster the financial support they receive.

Security considerations have also encouraged students from the rest of Iraq to transfer to universities in the Kurdish north.

Alan Yusef, who recently transferred to Dohuk, said: "Every moment you are at university in Iraq your life is in danger. The Americans built a base next to our campus and many mortar attacks on the base fell short and hit our campus. It is terrible. But here there is peace."

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