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Death batters at the doors of Iraq’s universities

February 28, 2007

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BAGHDAD: The Iraqi minister was at a loss. “What can we do?” he asked in a trembling voice after a woman suicide bomber detonated an explosive vest at a Baghdad business college, slaughtering 40 people.

“We cannot search everybody,” he said, recounting how the sectarian violence gripping the country has driven away students and teachers alike, threatening the futures of tens of thousands of young Iraqis.

Higher Education Minister Abed Dhiab al-Ujaili, who describes himself as an “optimist” despite Iraq’s relentless descent into chaos, said the blast came as students were preparing for examinations.

Security officials said most of those killed in Sunday’s blast at the entrance to Mustansiriyah University’s School of Economy and Administration in eastern Baghdad were students.

Such acts of violence, linked to attacks in which lecturers and professors are deliberately targeted, have taken a heavy toll on higher education in war-ravaged Iraq, according to students and teaching staff.

Nevertheless, Ujaili says student numbers have in fact increased to around 380,000, but he acknowledges that at least 195 university professors have been killed and another 60 kidnapped since the sectarian violence erupted a year ago.

Thousands more academics have fled the country, he said.

With the academic year severely disrupted, the ministry has announced that mid-term exams that are due about now can be postponed if necessary.

“We have a standard: the syllabus must be covered and the actual attendance must be at least 30 weeks of the year,” Ujaili said. “We gave colleges the flexibility to choose the date for mid-term exams because some colleges were late.” Daily bombings and mortar and gun attacks in Baghdad have made students and teachers fear for their lives.

In Baghdad universities, class attendance varies from 20 to 70 per cent, depending on the perceived danger level.“It is not good,” a university lecturer from the University of Baghdad, who asked not to be named, told AFP a few days before the School of Economy and Administration blast.

“You know the circumstances. It is very difficult to work. The road is not safe, the university is not safe,” added the 63-year-old lecturer.

She risks going only once a week to give classes at her campus.

“I usually change the day and I have a bodyguard,” she said.

When the universities are affected “society collapses,” she added. “We need training very, very much because we were very closed (during Saddam Hussein’s rule) and did not know what was happening in the world.” She said her students, both Shia and Sunnis, get along well.

“The problem is political, it is not social. Students do get along. There is no problem to live together. This is Iraq – we already did so.” A political science student spelt out some of the hardships of trying to attain a degree in a country sliding towards civil war.—AFP