Violence keeps lecturers abroad

December 17, 2004

Violence in the run-up to next month's election in Iraq is impeding hopes that academics overseas will return to help rebuild the country's shattered university system.

Tahir Khalaf Al Bekaa, Higher Education Minister in the interim administration, acknowledged the level of violence and uncertainty were a barrier.

"We expected faster progress but certain problems have got in the way, including funding and terrorism that clearly targets university professors and teachers, 37 of whom have been killed since the end of the war," Dr Al Bekaa said. Others had been kidnapped for ransom, he said.

The latest incident was a mortar attack on a university in which a female academic was injured, which took place earlier this month while Dr Al Bekaa was on a visit to London. Insurgents fired two mortar rounds into the grounds of the Technology University in Baghdad, claiming their target was US troops who were encamped in the grounds.

Dr Al Bekaa described the attack as "heinous" and condemned the killings.

His own home in Baghdad was shaken by an explosion on the same day, although it seems he was not the intended target.

He dismissed the insurgents as "enemies of democracy" determined to undermine the prospects of elections next month.

Thousands of Iraqi academics fled to the US, UK and Arab countries during the years of sanctions and political repression.

The minister was in the UK to reinforce links with UK universities. Britain has been the most active international partner in university reconstruction, largely through the efforts of the British Council.

While Iraq has 390,000 undergraduate and 18,000 postgraduate students, there are only 16,500 lecturers and barely half have progressed beyond a masters degree.

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