No room at the institute

December 12, 2003

Students at the University of Baghdad are sleeping on floors in classrooms because accommodation blocks have been taken over by the occupying forces and the city's homeless.

The issue is causing serious friction between the university authorities and the Coalition Provisional Authority.

University president Musa al-Musawi said: "We have no funds to rent or furnish alternative buildings. Now some students have taken over parts of the university and no one can force them out.

"We have 5,000 students requiring accommodation and have asked the CPA to provide funds to rent private buildings. But nothing has happened yet - we are in December with the first half of the academic year about to finish and no answer from the CPA so far."

Students have protested against the university and the higher education ministry, "but no one can do anything about this except the CPA", Dr al-Musawi added.

He said relations with the CPA were not easy. "We are always visited by CPA representatives asking us about our needs. Sometimes they cooperate with us. Sometimes they say something is beyond their capabilities, or that we have to wait and be patient. But we have got help from them in some circumstances."

That student demonstrations should have flared up over such an issue is all the more surprising given the potentially volatile political situation on campus.

Islamic students are the strongest presence, but there are also communists, democrats and Kurdish factions. "The only students who are not allowed to put their posters up are the supporters of the previous regime. Of course they tried - but they put their posters up one day and find they are stripped from the walls the next," Dr al-Musawi said.

Just as the academic year was due to open in October, Dr al-Musawi replaced the university president elected after the fall of the Saddam regime. It was suggested that Sami al-Mudhaffar was sacked by higher education minister Ziad Abdel Razzaq Aswad for failing to pursue the de-Ba'athification policy enthusiastically enough.

But Dr al-Musawi suggests that was a mistake. "The dismissal of Professor al-Mudhaffar was done in a hurry. After the whole thing was explained, the minister understood the real situation and nominated Professor al-Mudhaffar to another high post. Now there are no problems between the universities and the minister."

De-Ba'athification remains an issue at Baghdad. Almost 130 leading academics, who were high-ranking party members have appealed against their removal. The university has asked for their cases to be considered sympathetically if they are innocent of crimes allegedly committed during the Saddam era. "If there is a decision to return them to work, we will offer them their old position," Dr al-Musawi said.

He encouraged British universities to help with immediate needs such as books and equipment, and in the longer term to work on academic programmes and faculty exchanges.

"Iraq is a wealthy country - we expect the future to be bright. If help is given at this stage when we are in desperate need, the lines of communication will be open in future for very good ties with universities."

* The British Council is transporting 10 tonnes of academic books and materials to universities in Baghdad and Mosul, with 5,000 journals and textbooks sent to Basra and more to follow before the new year. The council has also brokered a series of training sessions for Iraqi academics and administrators at the University of Birmingham.

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