Scientists become targets in Iraq

Violence is common currency in Iraq, but one group is increasingly and persistently singled out — academics. Declan Butler reports on the risks run by researchers as they struggle to pursue their studies.

A chemist's mutilated body dumped on a street in Basra; a physicist shot twice in the back in Baghdad; a dean of engineering kidnapped by a hit squad, his body left on his wife's doorstep. Each week brings reports from Iraq of assassinations or kidnappings of scientists, academics and intellectuals, in what many argue is a systematic effort to eliminate or exile a group crucial to the country's reconstruction.

One of the first academics murdered was Muhammad al-Rawi, president of Baghdad University, assassinated in his clinic by a hit squad on 27 July 2003. In the chaos of Iraq, precise body counts are impossible, but observers have recorded several hundred assassinations of academics, with the rate of killings increasing over the past 18 months (see ‘Victims of violence’). More than 2,000 scientists are thought to have fled abroad.

Lack of investigation and prosecutions means little is known about the motives of the killers. Dlawer Ala'Aldeen, an Iraqi microbiologist at the University of Nottingham, UK, cautions that it is generally impossible to attribute assassinations to any one cause or group.

Military forces are a common sight at Baghdad University's campus, pictured here and below. Credit: D. VRANIC/AP

Some academics were part of the apparatus of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party and were victims of revenge, particularly in the aftermath of Hussein's fall, says Ala'Aldeen.

But he believes there is now a broader range of political drivers. “The universities reflect the power struggles among the various groups in wider society,” he says, with a war being waged between secular, Islamic and other factions. “It's so easy these days to lose your life in Iraq.”

The breakdown in security and stability under the US occupation has also led to spiralling levels of organized crime and corruption. Mohamed Al-Rubeai, an Iraqi chemical engineer at University College Dublin, Ireland, thinks academics are killed simply as part of wider attempts by “terrorists and Ba'athists” to target anyone trying to restore normality in Iraqi society.

Nonetheless, many scientists — including Ala'Aldeen — are convinced that academics are being singled out. “Some of these murders are instigated by greed and criminality,” says Rafid Alkhaddar, a water engineer at Liverpool John Moores University, UK. “But I and a vast number of Iraqis believe that there is an organized campaign to eliminate any remaining intellectuals inside Iraq.”

“Terrorist forces are out to scare the scientific community,” agrees Abbas Al-Hussaini, a civil engineer at the University of Westminster, UK, and general-secretary of the Iraq Higher Education Organizing Committee (IHEOC) in London, created in January 2004 to help reconstruct Iraq's devastated research and higher-education system.

Scientists and academics in Iraq enjoy “much greater prestige and status than in the West, and could transform it into a modern society”, says Al-Hussaini. “That is why they are being targeted.” He too believes the main perpetrators are former members of the Ba'ath party.

Some Ba'athists are also cynically highlighting the plight of academics “to imply that the situation is worse than under Saddam”, he claims. “In one way it is, but under Saddam's brutal dictatorship people had no rights; the future is now more hopeful.”

Others take conspiracy theories further. The BRussells Tribunal, a Brussels-based people's court modelled on the Russell Tribunal, a US movement opposed to the Vietnam War, believes the killings are due to militia death squads associated with US forces. The tribunal is made up of prominent intellectuals, human-rights campaigners and non-governmental organizations, including linguist and left-wing campaigner Noam Chomsky, and Denis Halliday, former United Nations humanitarian coordinator in Iraq.

The tribunal launched a petition in April, signed by many intellectuals including several Nobel prizewinners in literature, describing the killing of academics as the “decimation of the secular middle class — which has refused to be co-opted by the US occupation”.

Ophthalmic surgeon Ismail Jalili, former president of the UK Iraqi Medical Association and a member of the board of the British Arab Medical Association, takes a similar line. Jalili, who fled Iraq in 1969 after being imprisoned and tortured, says he believes many of the killings bear the “hallmark” of professionals (see ‘Under the gun’).

But despite varying views about who is behind the killings, Iraqis agree that the assassinations are unlikely to stop soon, and that the targets need protection. Most killings take place on the way to or from work, so Mosa Al-Mosawe, president of Baghdad University, suggests building a residential complex on campus, with armed guards, to protect staff and their families.

Foreign universities need to shelter Iraqi researchers who have received death threats, says Al-Hussaini. Since the fall of Baghdad, Ala'Aldeen has arranged for many Iraqis to work at the University of Nottingham. But many Western institutions are unaware of the issue, says Al-Hussaini. “Often it is only a matter of getting researchers and their families out for a few months,” he says, to get them out of the line of fire.

The insurgency has undermined university reconstruction efforts “beyond belief”, says Ala'Aldeen. For the first time, this year no Iraqi students or staff are coming to Nottingham. “They don't reply to e-mails; their focus has gone; they can't plan; their lives are shattered.”

“Under mayhem and terrorism, a very advanced academic system, the star of the Middle East, has been reduced to nothing,” he says. “It's heartbreaking to see a bunch of bright academics who should be rebuilding unable to do so.”

One glimmer of hope is Kurdistan in the north of Iraq, where many of the country's scientists have moved. The region, which has been relatively autonomous from both Saddam Hussein and US forces, is a haven of relative security. University reconstruction is proceeding apace, and Ala'Aldeen intends to hold the next IHEOC conference there next April. “It's symbolic; it will be in Iraq,” he says. “We are excited about it.”