January 17, 2004

On Iraqi Campus, Free Can Be Messy


New York Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Jan. 16 — Along a bend in the Tigris River, at the center of the bustling main campus of the University of Baghdad, stands a headless Saddam Hussein.

American soldiers decapitated the 10-foot-high concrete statue of Iraq's former ruler, dressed in professorial robes. Elsewhere here at Iraq's largest and most prominent university, a red ribbon cordons off a wide patch of ground where mines were very likely planted by Republican Guard soldiers when they used the university as a staging area last spring.

A sign in a central building warns students in English: "It is prohibited to carry arms in the university. Kindly hand it to the reception office."

Students and professors stride with an air of purpose to class, as they did before the American-led invasion. But the war has not left this bucolic campus untouched, and many of the roiling changes it has experienced in the last nine months mirror the greater transformations, both good and bad, in Iraqi society.

Most obvious are the newfound political and religious freedoms that have flowered across the campus. There are fliers on the walls touting the edicts of prominent Shiite Muslim clerics instead of slogans praising Mr. Hussein. Fifteen student unions, representing a range of ethnic and religious groups, have sprung up to replace the Baathist student league. Some women wear tight sweaters and miniskirts, and student romances flourish.

The faculty has scrapped the propaganda-based curriculum dictated by Mr. Hussein's Baath Party. That includes crossing out references to Mr. Hussein and the party in some textbooks, though wholesale changes to classroom material are rare. Two recent book fairs have made a wide range of previously banned texts available to students, from Shiite religious tomes to romance novels. (At one of the fairs, a religious book, "Inside the Halls of the Koran," sat next to a romance, "The Seduction of the Eagle.")

"The first thing that is different from the past regime is the freedom, the freedom that the students and staff members and employees have again," said Mosa Jawad Aziz al-Mosawi, the university's president and an engineering faculty member. "But now we have urgent things that need attention."

The university is struggling with a lack of resources, from scarce dormitory space and funds to buy library books to a dearth of qualified teachers. For example, the de-Baathification program — put in motion in May by American officials to remove senior party members from all levels of society — has led to the dismissal of 182 professors here, resulting in a knowledge gap, administrators say.

More troubling, a handful of former Baathist teachers have been killed off campus in crimes that their colleagues and police officials consider politically motivated. One, Muhammad al-Rawi, the last university president under Mr. Hussein, was shot in a medical clinic that he ran. No one seems to know the exact number of victims.

The school has been forced to fill the vacancies with recent graduates, returning exiles or retirees. Many faculty members are angry with the American-ordered purge of Baathists, arguing that only a minority of people who joined the party believed in its ideology. Most joined for career advancement and simple self-preservation, they say.

"The situation is collective punishment," said Sami al-Mudhaffar, a biochemistry professor who served as president of the university from last May until September. "Some of those are good people, some are very bad people. You don't punish all people for the same crime."

In the political science department, for example, 65 of 70 teachers were party members. Of those, six were considered senior enough to be fired. "It's not easy to substitute someone for a teacher who has been fired," said Dhari Rasheed Ali Yasseen, a non-Baathist professor in the department. "Some have had 20 years of experience at the university."

With the backing of the university, the dismissed teachers have applied to the Coalition Provisional Authority for exceptions from the nationwide purge, Professor Mosawi said.

"We know that some of them were very good and we need them, and they applied to be excluded," he said. "We have nominated all of them, but we put in a clause saying the university is not responsible for any crimes or bad things. This is not our job. If they have committed crimes, they have to go to the courts."

On Jan. 11, the Iraqi Governing Council announced new guidelines for appeals. A senior coalition official said people who had previously applied for exceptions will now have to reapply under the new rules.

For many students, though, the dismissal of Baathists is welcomed. "We want the whole faculty to change from a dictatorial age to an age of freedom," said Ali Abdul-Jabar, a petroleum engineering student and senior member of the new Shiite student union. "We're taking advantage of the Coalition Provisional Authority's laws to purge the Baathists and clear the university."

Students and teachers describe how under the old regime they were regularly ordered from class to perform military drills and how they had to endure two-hour "national education" lectures, which touted Baathist triumphs. Men close to Mr. Hussein, including his eldest son, Uday, a former civil engineering student here, would come to the university, abduct women from the campus and rape them, many students and teachers said.

Students still talk about an incident in 1998, when Baath Party officials took two Shiite engineering students from an examination hall and accused them of having taken part in antigovernment demonstrations after the assassination of Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, a prominent Shiite cleric, in 1999. The students disappeared without a trace, and the dean of the engineering college resigned in protest.

Now, the most immediate concern for many administrators is the lack of resources, Professor Mudhaffar, the former president, said. When the school year began in September, freshmen flooded the campus: there were 50 percent more than usual. Tuition is free, and administrators did not want to turn students away in a bleak job market.

But a $500,000 fund, established by the old government for university expenses, has been frozen, Professor Mudhaffar said. Some months the school has had as little as $25,000 from the Ministry of Higher Education to operate 35 colleges for 85,000 students.

Pay for professors has shrunk, and the library cannot buy new books. "The morale of the teachers is not that high," Professor Mudhaffar said, "which is a problem. But they continue working. These are people who love their university and love their country."

What's more, there is not enough dormitory space for the 5,000 students who need housing, administrators say, because the American military has occupied three-quarters of the space and pays no rent. The housing shortage is one of the worst problems, Professor Mosawi said.

Capt. Aaron J. Hatok, a spokesman for the First Armored Division, which controls most of Baghdad, said that a substantial number of soldiers had been living in the dorms, but most of them have moved out.

As many people in Iraq have observed, democracy can be messy, and the flourishing of free speech at the university has led to new political and religious tensions. Of the 15 student unions that have sprung up since last spring, Mr. Abdul-Jabar's Shiite union is the largest and most powerful. He said it is open to all students but most members are Shiite. It is at least partly financed by a group of prominent Shiite religious schools, known as the Hawza, based in the southern holy city of Najaf.

After the union claimed the old headquarters of the Baathist student league, some former Baathist students banded into a union, based in the physical education department, Mr. Abdul-Jabar said. Members of the two groups have been involved in fistfights, he added.

On a recent afternoon a pile of white religious pamphlets sat on a table in the gloomy main hall of the Shiite student union. Next to the entrance a poster with the word "martyrs" displayed black-and-white head shots of dozens of Shiite men and women executed during Mr. Hussein's regime.

Fliers on a bulletin board listed edicts of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most influential Shiite cleric in Iraq, and Moktada al-Sadr, the son of Ayatollah Sadr.

Early last summer Moktada al-Sadr mobilized his followers to take over student unions at universities across the country. As Shiite student unions gained prominence, other students at the University of Baghdad began watching them warily, fearing they might try to impose hard-line religious practices.

"They've been putting up pictures of Sadr, and we've been taking them down," said Lina Aboosi, a third-year architecture student. "We're not opposing these things because they're religious. But this is a university, not a mosque."