Union reborn after years of oppression

July 11, 2003

In l981, Tariq Al-Mukhtar, newly elected president of the General Union of Students in Iraq (GUSI), was due to graduate from the University of Baghdad. Instead he found himself fleeing from Saddam Hussein's police. His crime was to be a member of the Iraqi Students Union.

Mr Al-Mukhtar fled to Amara in the south of the country, but was arrested in March 1981. "I was staying in a friend's house and was taken to a security building in Amara where I was questioned before being moved to a security building in Kalmir in the north of Baghdad."

Mr Al-Mukhtar, now 48, said he was tortured for several months and given a life sentence for being a member of what Saddam's government deemed an illegal organisation.

"In l977, Saddam declared all trade unions and organisations operating independently of the government illegal. He replaced the union with the Ba'athist National Students Union. In the early 1980s, thousands of people were rounded up and accused of being members of illegal organisations," he said. "We had continued working secretly even though we knew the punishment was death."

When asked how he was tortured, Mr Al-Mukhtar would only say: "It was torture of different kinds." Many students were sentenced to life imprisonment and others just disappeared. "Although with the discovery of mass graves we are now discovering their fate," Mr Al-Mukhtar said.

International protests in 1982 led to the release of at least 86 imprisoned students, including Mr Al-Mukhtar. But he was unable to complete his final year and, in the years that followed, he did what work he could, including driving taxis. Mr Al-Mukhtar is now in the second year of law studies at the Baghdad College of Law.

Throughout Saddam's regime, the GUSI, which was founded in l948, remained a member of international student bodies, sending emails alerting the world to student conditions in Iraqi universities. For example, in 2000, it revealed a "training campaign" to place thousands of students under direct supervision to prevent them participating in any activity against Saddam, and of enforced military training of students organised by the BNSU.

In 1998, the GUSI began holding clandestine conferences and meetings. A dilapidated military store in central Baghdad has now become the union's temporary headquarters.

The union's priority is security. "It's still dangerous to travel to university, especially for women," Mr Al-Mukhtar said.

"Some science laboratories have been looted and equipment taken away. After years of sanctions the education system has been run down, and we especially need computers. It's an exciting time for us, but there's a lot of work to do."

Appeal for Iraqi university cash

An Iraqi-born professor and his wife are trying to convince the Canadian government to back plans for an international university in Baghdad.

University of Calgary professors Tareq and Jacqueline Ismael are seeking C$25 million (£11.1 million) to encourage more investment in the C$350 million-C$500 million project. They envisage the creation of a secular English-language university drawing on the estimated 1,000 Iraqi professors in exile.

Their initiative emerged as the US Agency for International Development extended its deadline for applications from US universities to bid for a part in the reconstruction process until the end of July. The original deadline gave four weeks to submit plans.

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