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DAWN - Editorial; March 18, 2006

March 18, 2006

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Persisting in folly

THREE years after its invasion of Iraq, the US has again deployed force on a massive scale in an assault billed as a flushing-out operation in the Samarra region. The strike, which involves Iraqi troops, has coincided with a reiteration by the Bush administration of its doctrine of pre-emption and a warning that Iran may pose the biggest threat to US national security. Both developments are alarming because they betray an inability on the part of Washington to learn any lesson from the failed policy that it has pursued so far in its aggressive quest to browbeat the world — a policy that has led to destabilization and disruption on a large scale. Samarra is where a Shia shrine was attacked last month, which precipitated sectarian violence and tensions. It is said that the area harbours Al Zarqawi and his band of Al Qaeda fighters who are accused of the attack on the shrine and generally stirring up trouble. On the same day as the action was launched, the fractious Iraqi parliament met for its inaugural session, and the Iraqi foreign minister was later heard saying that the Samarra operation would provide good training for Iraqi troops.

There was no word till Friday afternoon of casualties among those targeted or among the civilian population. The objective of the strike is puzzling: Iraqi troops could have been provided training in a more civilized exercise; searching for resistance or foreign fighters is an on-going process and didn’t need throwing in 50 aircraft, 1,500 troops and 200 armoured vehicles. Sectarian tensions are unlikely to disappear through such methods. More and more, it appears to be more of the bluff and bluster, backed by the use of intimidating military power, that have now become a characteristic of the Bush doctrine.

Far from seeking to reverse the unilateralist policy, which has already inflicted incalculable damage on the international order and split America itself, the White House is determined to persist in its folly. Threats to Iran have been renewed and the right to employ military strength to prevent a perceived danger once again enunciated as a major policy plank. It is clear that the US position on Iran is running into trouble in the UN Security Council, and the Samarra show may well be meant also to impress American allies. In the process, the US is creating more enemies than winning friends and allies. Even governments willing to go along with Washington are finding it increasingly difficult to cope with rising anti-US sentiments within their own countries. Noam Chomsky, talking to an American journal early this year, remarked: “The Bush administration has succeeded in making the United States one of the most feared and hated countries in the world. The talent of these guys is unbelievable. They have even succeeded at alienating Canada. I mean, that takes genius, literally.” A pithier comment will be hard to find.

In many ways this is a tragedy. America has so much to give to make the world a more peaceable, prosperous and cooperative community. It can play a leading role far more easily through its achievements in science, medicine and technological innovation. These achievements too are threatened by the current reliance on bullying because they mean more and more spending on the military machine and are bleeding the US economically. It is time for some honest soul-searching by American policy-makers.

Urban transit systems

IT seems that the Karachi and Lahore city district governments are now acting in a coordinated move on the construction of urban mass transit systems in the country’s two largest urban centres. How one wishes this were true. If the past is any guide, such commitments have turned out to be mere talking points. The two cities have unveiled several mass transit plans from time to time for nearly three decades now, but none has taken off the ground. Staring in 1977, one feasibility report after another was formulated, debated and discussed and then all was forgotten about them. A number of foreign investors walked out of a given project in frustration because the will to implement the plan had been found lacking. Why the public is being fooled time and again with such paper plans and projects — feasibility reports of a few in the past were commissioned out to foreign firms at high costs — remains an unanswered question. It is good to hear those in authority express concern over the lack of a proper transport system in our cities and one hopes this time around they mean what they say.

Both Karachi and Lahore virtually have no organized, integrated urban transport system. As a result, millions of commuters suffer everyday at the hands of private transporters who operate as a mafia, acquiring permits to run buses on lucrative routes but not fulfilling their obligations. The gap created by the state pulling out of the public transport sector has been filled by those driven by greed rather than a sense of civic service in this vital area. Few cities the size of Karachi and Lahore anywhere are without an efficient urban transport system; most cities in the region have state-run entities managing this sector. It is time all tarrying on this important public issue was cast aside and concrete plans made and implemented. Given the high costs involved, the task is clearly beyond the city governments’ financial capacity. The federal government should come up with a national urban transit policy for big cities, provide funding for it and get it going.

Visas for WSF delegates

ORGANIZERS of the World Social Forum have complained that the government is dragging its feet over issuing visas to thousands of delegates who plan to attend the forum being held in Karachi later this month. The organizers have a point when they say that unless resolved quickly, the problem could affect attendance at the forum and give the country a bad name. Some weeks ago, a WSF delegation had met the interior minister in Islamabad and had received assurances that there would be no delay in issuing visas to the participants. Lest the government bureaucracy, especially those manning the interior ministry and our embassies overseas, forget, the World Social Forum is a high-profile event that is periodically held in different countries and its successful convening will be a feather in the country’s cap. Considering this, and given that improving the country’s image seems to be an issue close to the president and the prime minister, it is difficult to understand why visas are not being issued promptly.

The organizers have pointed out that many delegates are coming from countries where there are no Pakistan embassies. In such cases, delegates should be given visas on arrival if they have an invitation letter with them. Given that several thousand cricket enthusiasts from India were given visas when the Indian cricket team played here, there seems to be no reason for not extending the same courtesy to the WSF delegates. Unfortunately, some elements in the government have always been wary of NGOs and that, other than bureaucratic apathy, could be one reason for the delay. In any case, a successful holding of the WSF here would be good for the country’s reputation and image and since such opportunities are hard to come by, the government should do all it can to facilitate the event. Perhaps, intervention at the highest level is required to cut through the red tape.

Killing of intellectuals in Iraq

By Asma Rashid


ALI Hussein al-Khafaj, dean of the engineering college at Al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, was kidnapped on March 7. Before him, Dr Ali Abdul Razaq al-Naas, a Shia political analyst at Baghdad University’s school of information and an outspoken critic of the US occupation, was gunned down by unknown assailants on January 27, four days after Dr Husham Abd al-Hamid, a veterinarian, was assassinated.

As Iraqi writer Haifa Zangana notes, “not a week has passed since the invasion of Iraq, without news of the assassination, or attempted assassination, of a teacher, scientist or specialist.”

According to the United Nations University, an international group of researchers, 84 per cent of Iraq’s higher education establishments have been set on fire, looted or destroyed. In addition, one million books, 10 million documents and 14,000 archaeological artifacts have been lost since the US invaded Iraq in 2003.

“The Mongols stained the Tigris black with the ink of the Iraqi books they destroyed,” says noted journalist Robert Fisk. “Today’s Mongols prefer to destroy the Iraqi teachers of books.” He was referring to the systematic elimination of Iraqi intellectuals and academics that has to date claimed the lives of some 300 scientists and 250 Iraqi educators. Hundreds are missing and thousands have fled the country.

This barbaric assault on learning began in 1991. Under Ba’ath rule, Iraq’s annual budget for public health and education was the highest in the region. Its public education system was unique in that a child from the lowest strata of society could benefit from quality education from primary school to the highest level at state expense. No wonder Iraq not merely boasted a 98 per cent literacy rate but also had the highest per capita Ph.D ratio in the world.

However, Iraq’s progressive and educated middle class, constituting the country’s richest asset, was perceived as a grave threat to Zionist-imperialist designs in the region. Hence, the virtual ban on applied research in the sciences, coupled with draconian sanctions, which impacted even on basic study material, books, pencils and paper, wreaked havoc in the field of higher education. This resulted in a UN report (1993) that identified the situation as one of “intellectual stagnation and isolation”.

After the invasion, the purge of Iraqi academics, doctors, engineers and scientists followed. Almost all senior academics were dismissed in the name of de-Ba’athification and a large number were killed. Among them, Prof Wajih Mahjoub was murdered in the college of physical education as US troops rolled into Baghdad in April 2003. A few months later in July, Dr Mohammad al-Ravi, a former president of Baghdad University and an eminent surgeon, was shot down in his surgery.

Dr Falah al-Dulaimi, an assistant dean in Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, was shot in his office. Dr Abdul Latif al-Mayah was killed hours after he denounced the corruption of a US-appointed governing council on Al Jazeera. Dr al-Izmerly, a chemistry professor, was tortured to death by US forces who made a vain attempt to extract from him a desperately-needed confession to show that Iraq’s WMD programme was alive.

Dr Nafa Aboud of the Arabic department and Dr Hissam Sharif of the history department at Baghdad University were among those killed in 2004. Dr Sabri al-Bayati of the geography department was shot dead in front of his students. In June the same year, Mosul University witnessed a particularly gruesome killing. Dr Layla Abdul Jabbar, dean of the college of law, was asleep when the killers came for her. They shot both her and her husband and decapitated them.

The killings went on in 2005. In July, well-known architect Bassam al-Bair was fired upon by American soldiers in the middle of the day as he was driving out to run some errands in Baghdad. Al-Mustansiriya University alone lost three teachers in August who were gunned down as they left the university premises. Unknown men kidnapped Dr Samir Yalda, assistant director of the faculty of business administration and economics. His body was found wrapped up in a street.

Later in August, Dr Wissam al-Hashimi, an internationally renowned geologist, was kidnapped. Despite the payment of ransom, his body was found three weeks later. He had apparently been shot twice in the head. Three academics lost their lives during Christmas week, killed by gunmen while one scientist, Dr Kadhim Mashhood, was found hacked to pieces after having being taken away by the police from his house.

As may be seen from this brief survey the victims have been men and women from all over Iraq, from different ethnic, religious and political backgrounds and belonging to various disciplines in the sciences and arts. These are targeted killings with no link to the usual kidnapping for ransom. No one claims responsibility, not a single case has been investigated nor a single arrest made. The liquidation of the country’s academics is a little known aspect of the tragedy engulfing Iraq.

US-backed special units had started conducting strikes against leaders of the so-called insurgency since March 2003. In the face of growing resistance, a force of paramilitary death commandos was formed and trained by veterans of the US’s dirty wars in South America, including the former US ambassador to Iraq John Negroponte and James Steele, adviser to the Iraqi interior ministry.

In 2004, as part of the ministry’s security apparatus and in conjunction with US forces, these death squads unleashed a reign of terror the country had never known even in the darkest periods of its history. Horrendous torture, extra-judicial executions and arbitrary arrests, became the order of the day. Mutilated corpses littered the garbage dumps, and the morgues overflowed while hundreds of people simply disappeared.

The induction of ethnic and sectarian militias like the Kurdish peshmarga and al-Badr in the security forces was meant to crush popular opposition and, at the same time, to promote divisiveness in a country where traditionally the communities overlapped and intermarried. Dr John Pace, former UN human rights chief in Iraq, gives an idea of the enormity of the crime being committed against the people of Iraq in the name of freedom and democracy. In a statement on Feb 20, he charged that 1,000 detainees were being tortured to death every month in Baghdad — with the full knowledge of the US.

The violence in Iraq is being made worse, he said, by the seizing of young Iraqi men by US troops and Iraqi police as they move from city to city carrying out raids. He estimated that some 23,000 Iraqis of whom 80 to 90 per cent are innocent, were being held and tortured in detention centres run mostly by partisan militias absorbed in the police.

The slaughter of Iraqi academics is being carried out by various forces such as the occupation forces, the CIA, the Mossad and the interior ministry’s deaths squads and fascist militias. All of them share a common interest: the emergence of a weak and possibly theocratic Iraq. Warning of the dire consequences of the “huge brain drain” afflicting Iraq, one professor said: “This is a dramatic loss for the country and without Iraq’s educated middle class, we will be sure to see a rise in sectarianism and extremism which is what the occupier wants.”

For, as inheritors of a glorious cultural past stretching to times immemorial, the Iraqi intelligentsia has upheld secular and democratic traditions in Iraq. Learning has always been central in Iraq and educators and the educated have enjoyed great respect and prestige. As attested by many observers, even under Saddam Hussein, the university classroom was a virtually autonomous space for learning and instruction, where professors and students could be openly critical. They could even criticize the government, so long as they did not mention Saddam or his two sons.

In the pursuit of its goals, the occupation forces realise that they have to silence those with independent minds, and decimate Iraq’s academics, doctors and scientists to forestall the emergence of a secular, moral and democratic leadership from within Iraq that would enable the country to regain its independence and realize its human and material potential. In the words of Iraqi academics, the occupation forces intend to “complete the destruction of Iraq’s cultural identity which began with the destruction of the Baghdad Quranic library, the national archives and the looting of the archaeological museum when the American army entered Baghdad.”

Writing in the Guardian, Richard Drayton had commented that it was usual to explain the chaos and looting in Baghdad, the destruction of infrastructure, ministries, museums and the national library and archives as caused by the failure of Rumsfeld’s planning. “But the evidence is that this was at least in part a mask for the destruction of the collective memory and modern state of a key Arab nation, and the manufacture of disorder to create a hunger for the occupier’s supervision. As the Suddeutsche Zeitung reported in May 2003, US troops broke the locks of museums, ministries and universities and told looters; ‘Go in Ali Baba, it’s all yours!’”

On the initiative of Iraqi academics, the Brussels tribunal in Belgium has started to build a network of contacts to raise public awareness of the atrocities taking place and support the academic community in Iraq in their effort to make their voice heard.