Shadow over Baghdad

July 4, 2003

When US marines moved into Baghdad from the east at the height of the war in Iraq, they stormed on to the University of Baghdad campus to return fire from Iraqi soldiers hiding in the empty buildings.

For several hours the university, one of three in Baghdad, was a battlefield, with black smoke rising from the buildings as US soldiers flushed out Iraqi troops.

Six weeks later, US soldiers were still on campus, patrolling the university perimeters in tanks and armoured vehicles, searching students and staff at the gates. Around the university buildings of the Jadriah campus (sciences, engineering and political science) students gathered under the shade of trees or strolled to classes as if all this was normal.

Computer science student Ali Abdul Azad was on good terms with the soldiers. "I want to go to America to work because they said you earn good money working on computers there," he said.

He returned to the university three weeks after the war ended, but his two friends, Wehad Mounam, 19, a first-year science student, and her classmate Rua Ahmed, 20, were to attend their first lecture that morning.

"It's difficult for women to travel," Ms Mounam said. "There is no security on the streets. Women have been raped and kidnapped, so we can't travel alone. Ali picks us up in a taxi, and we travel to and from the university together. It's my first day in college. I had to come because I have to finish my year."

Seven days after the Americans captured Baghdad, Mr Azad travelled to see if the science and engineering faculties had survived the bombing and subsequent looting. "I came with friends and we tried to clean up my department. There was a little bomb damage, some fire damage and bullet holes in the walls. There was a lot of broken glass, but some school caretakers were here, so looters were not able to take a lot of equipment or books."

The three students have known education only under the restriction of sanctions, which were imposed by the United Nations Security Council after the Gulf war in 1991. "There are four students to each computer, and 20 students must share each calculator," Ms Mounam said. "There's a waiting list for every book in the library."

In l997, a silent man introduced as a lecturer shadowed the assistant dean of the arts faculty, Favil Al Sheikli. Six years later, no government minder was required and access to the university was unhindered. "Under Saddam Hussein, we couldn't talk to foreigners like this," Mr Azad said. Mr Al Sheikli is no longer at the university. Like most other members of the ruling Ba'ath party, he and the dean have lost their jobs.

Nassim Rashid, the new dean, is a respected expert in classical Arabic. He was voted into the job by his colleagues. "At the moment, the main problem is money. The old ministry of education has been dismantled, and we don't know what is going to take its place. An American is in charge of the new ministry of education, but I haven't met him."

Like the rest of Iraq, the university has descended into chaos. "Someone sent over some money in a convoy of armoured vehicles to pay the staff, but it's less than what we were earning before, and no one seems to know how much we will get in the future," Dr Rashid said.

Menahir Ahmed Ali Al-Nawasma, head of the women-only English department and assistant dean, spent 20 years in her department. "Before the (1991) Gulf war, everything was nice and natural here. I went twice with MA students to Saffron Walden International College and to London University in 1990. With the help of the British Council, English professors and Shakespearean theatre companies visited us. After the Gulf war, all that stopped and we became isolated from English culture."

During the war, Ms Al-Nawasma risked her life by driving to her office. "I had to see that everything was intact. I took out all the computers and put the students' grades on disc and brought them home. I was afraid that looters might take everything."

Immediately after the war, she returned with several students to clean the building. "Nothing was stolen because American soldiers were at the gates," she said.

The study week has been cut from six days to four. Many of the university's 750 students live outside Baghdad, and their parents have to bring them in.

"The students are tired. It is difficult for them to concentrate and they are absent-minded. Some have lost relatives in the war, and they don't know what will happen to them in the future."

Ms Al-Nawasma said a popular member of her staff was told by the new authorities that he should not return to work. "He is a professor of English who has worked here for 21 years. A nice guy and an excellent lecturer. He never offended anyone. He was a member of the Ba'ath party, but that doesn't make him a criminal. I am going to fight for his reinstatement."

In one class, 30 students were crammed into a small airless room for a lecture on English grammar. Outside, the temperature was about 40C. The air conditioning was not working because the electricity supply throughout the city is still unreliable.

One woman said angrily: "We are suffering very much. You don't know how hard it is for us. We all have psychological problems. We don't know what is happening.

"In the war, my mother was very anxious, crying all the time, and my father has to bring me a long way every day for my classes. Our education was free, but now we don't know if we will have to pay. How will we get this money when our parents have no jobs? Is this freedom?"

As I strolled across the campus, through crowds of students and past a shoeshine boy and watch repairer, a man insisted that I visit the university president to let him know I was there. He dismissed the assurance that Dr Rashid had given permission for me to visit the English faculty and a shadow of the former regime fell across us.

I was taken to a tower block and escorted up several flights of stairs to an office. The secretaries seemed mystified by the explanation for my visit. One said that as the president was unavailable I had to leave the campus.

From her face it was clear that it was pointless to argue, but the fear behind her bureaucratic ritual was a reminder that old habits die hard and that, until Saddam Hussein is found, there is always the possibility that he might return.

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