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+ By Alice Fordham


For Iraq’s science and engineering schools, recovery is slow and painful.

Baghdad – It was late autumn, and the physics department of Nahrain University was in mourning. Black-rimmed banners announced the death of Mazen Mahrooq, the latest in a long line of academics who had been killed or who had fled the country. A Christian, he was one of dozens of people massacred during a Baghdad church service in October. Sitting sadly in the department lobby, his colleagues noted that in 1995, they had 24 senior physicists; now there were just three.

Continued violence and its toll on academics have undermined Iraqi universities’ recovery from three decades of war and sanctions. While existing institutions expand and a number of new ones are opening to accommodate a growing student population, the cumulative damage and loss of talent continue to be felt. The Ministry of Education reported more than 31,000 violent attacks against educational institutions during the 2003-2008 period. Universities in the capital were the worst hit in a wave of assassinations nationwide that killed hundreds of academics. Skilled science educators, a third of them engineers, were reported to be the most frequent targets. Even before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, more than a decade of United Nations sanctions imposed on Saddam Hussein’s autocratic regime left teachers without academic journals, up-to-date equipment, or even pens and paper. In a nation where education has traditionally meant prestige, one fourth of adults are illiterate.

At Nahrain University – formerly Saddam University – post-invasion mobs wrecked nuclear physics facilities, and laser and thermodynamics laboratories are only now beginning to get back on their feet. “Outside Iraq, the world of science is running, but we are just walking – or even standing still,” says Bashar Jassim, an astrophysicist whose only telescope is adjusted manually and has no photometer.

Mustansiriyah University in Baghdad - © CPT photoThe state of Iraqi scientific and technical education is all the sadder because of Baghdad’s rich heritage as a center of discovery and higher learning. Mustansiriyah University, built in the 13th century, is still functioning today, although its ancient stonework has required heavy restoration following car bombings. It has taught science and mathematics, as well as Islamic scholarship, for centuries. As early as the ninth century, Baghdad drew scholars like the Abbassid court astronomer Thabit ibn Qurra, whose contribution to non-Euclidean geometry is still recognized today. Many of the handwritten works of these ancient scholars are still here; the head of the national manuscripts collection can find and read aloud from the original works of Ibn Sina, an early medical scholar.

Technocratic Tradition

After the Ottoman Empire crumbled in World War I, British officials ruling the newly formed nation of Iraq under a League of Nations mandate began to create a modern higher education system, moving away from the predominantly scriptural Islamic studies of the 19th century. During the 1920s, the government began sending young people to study in the United States or Britain, and in 1932 the education minister ruled that admission to universities be based entirely on grades, cutting down drastically on nepotism. “They made it what it used to be,” says Zuhair Humadi, executive director of the Higher Committee for Education Development. “It was good quality; it was merit-based.”

Following the discovery of oil in Iraq in 1927, science and engineering became the backbone of the new education system. In 1951, a development council was established, to which, for a few years, all the oil revenues went. In sharp contrast with the allegedly corrupt centralization of Iraq’s oil money today, this fund went to build dams, electricity infrastructure, railways, and bridges, requiring thousands of qualified engineers and architects. “There was tremendous work and education,” says Humadi. The country was rapidly modernizing, and the influence of Western studies continued, even after the British mandate ended in 1932. Today in Iraq, members of an older technocratic generation, schooled in the West, still reminisce over sugary tea and cigarettes about warm beer, cold weather, and Ph.D. studies in electrical engineering or applied mathematics at British redbrick universities.

The University of Technology in Baghdad, one of more than 35 universities and colleges in Iraq, is testament to this commitment to science and engineering. Founded at the beginning of Saddam Hussein’s rule in 1975, well before the eight-year Iran-Iraq war seriously weakened the nation’s institutions, it boasts 14 departments – 12 engineering and two pure science – as well as 1,300 teaching staff, 8,000 undergraduates, and 550 postgraduate students. Its three research centers concentrate on fuel and energy, nanotechnology, and environmental studies.

Kahtan Al-Khazraji, university president, receives visitors graciously, presenting an institutional crest as a gift, and tells a story of destruction and rebuilding. “Since 1990 and the first Gulf War, the standards went down,” he says. The sanctions during that decade meant that no foreign scholars could come to Iraq, and far fewer of his students could travel abroad. But those were small hardships compared with what was to come in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion. “The university was completely looted and destroyed during the war. I was there when eight American tanks broke down the gates and distributed themselves around the university,” he said.

American soldiers, he went on, stood by as post-invasion looters ravaged the campus. What looters could not steal, they broke, and what they could not break, they burned down. “I stood here, at that window, and watched,” says Khazraji, gesturing helplessly toward the grounds now thronging with students. The university was left without chairs, without answer papers for examinations. In the bloody years that followed, more than 100 members of the university were killed; even today, the streets around the school are closed and the buildings surrounded by 20-foot blast walls. There were four bombs near the university the morning of this reporter’s visit.

‘I’m Very Ambitious’

But around the campus, the youthful energy is palpable. Students spoke on condition that their last names not be published because of security concerns, but they sounded upbeat. Esraa, 20, whose uncovered hair and bright clothes identified her as among the less conservative, is studying chemical engineering. “I love chemistry, and I’m very ambitious,” she said, adding that she would like to work in industry. Her friend Ramina, 21, is studying aeronautics and wants to be a pilot. Young men and women sat together in the autumn sunshine, drinking soda and doing homework. Around them, the university was reviving slowly. After the staff mended the laboratory machines for optics, nanotechnology, and nuclear studies – “with bits and pieces from the markets,” according to one professor – the university obtained funding for more reconstruction from the Baghdad provincial council. Computer labs went up, and a student union with a cafeteria was rebuilt. “Really, we worked day and night to rebuild this place,” says Khazraji. In the architecture department, Professor Khalil Ali said that they had begged for and bought thousands of books to restock the library. “Iraqi architecture graduates — we wish we could give them more, but they are ok,” he says. “They’re not bad.”

Elsewhere, the threat of violence has not deterred substantial expansion at a number of institutions. The minister of higher education and scientific research, Abd Thiab Al-Ajeeli, plans to open 15 more universities in the next three years. Change has been particularly noticeable in the northern Kurdish region, brutally treated under Saddam Hussein. Where there was only one university in 2003, now there are 11. Seven have opened in the rest of Iraq since 2003. The president of the University of Technology estimates that there are 5 percent more students in Iraq than there were in 2003. International aid has helped, including a U.S. Agency for International Development program that promotes partnerships between American and Iraqi universities. More than 1,500 Iraqi faculty and students were given access to training courses outside Iraq. Iraqi institutions have gained access to up-to-date scholarship through the Iraq Virtual Science Library, providing free, full-text access to thousands of scientific journals from major publishers. In early 2009, representatives of about 20 American universities attended the launch of Zuhair Humadi’s Iraq Education Initiative, which aims to provide scholarships for tens of thousands of students to study abroad. The State Department, meanwhile, runs a variety of programs to help young Iraqis study in the United States, and talks are ongoing to allow American university specialists to teach Iraqis via videoconference and lectures.

The big problem for engineering and science graduates is a lack of jobs, forcing many to drive taxis, perform manual labor, or look for work outside the country. “The structure of our education system is inconsistent with the structure and growth of our economy,” says Ahmed Ibraihi, vice governor of the Central Bank. “Development has been frozen since the mid-1980s, so we have a surplus in engineering and in science.” The country’s institutions are still very weak, infected with corruption and held back by months of political paralysis before the recent formation of a coalition government under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The oil industry, while recovering, and contractually obliged to provide work to Iraqis, is not yet a big employer. Private industry has had difficulty producing goods that can compete with imports.

There is some reason for optimism. Overall security, though not good, has improved, and the new government may soon be in a position to launch housing and infrastructure projects. “The people want to be educated,” said Zaid, 21, a civil engineering student at the University of Technology. “And Iraq needs this! It is destroyed. It needs bridges, highways, and sewage systems.”

Iraq is trying to lure back university teaching staff with heretofore unheard-of salary hikes. They can now make $3,000 a month, more than in neighboring Syria and Jordan. Still, says Ibraihi, the country has a long way to go to recover its science and technology base. “We are lacking people motivated enough to touch the frontiers of knowledge,” he says. “In a society passing through these horrible years of wars and sanctions, these motives are eroded.”


Alice Fordham is a Middle East-based journalist.




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