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January 27, 2007

Students, Professors Flee to the Kurdish North

by Jim Lobe

ARBIL - Academic life in Iraq's volatile southern and central regions has become increasingly paralyzed, with hundreds of students and professors targeted and many more abandoning their educational institutions in search of a refuge.

Raad Yaseen, 25, fled Baghdad's insecurity in mid-2004 to study at Mosul University, 396 kms north of the capital. He stayed there barely a year, fleeing again in early 2005 to Arbil, 80 kms east of Mosul, in the country's safer northern Kurdistan region. Now he studies sociology in Arbil's Salahaddin University.

He is still traumatized by the "horrible scenes" he saw in Mosul.

"Right outside our dormitory, we could see corpses dumped on the streets with notes pinned on their chests that 'this traitor is punished,'" Yaseen, a Sunni Arab, recalled of the experiences he and fellow students had in Mosul.

His family later followed him to Arbil after militias tied to the al-Badr organization, the military wing of the powerful Shi'ite Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, forced them to evacuate their house in Baghdad.

Several of Yaseen's classmates and friends were killed as part of the rampant violence that has engulfed academic staff as well.

"Because of the violence over there, it is very difficult, almost impossible, to study," he said. "And I see no solution for this situation in the country really."

Since the eruption of violence in Iraq, following the US-led invasion in 2003, Kurdistan's five universities have been flooded with students and professors who abandoned their original schools.

Figures from regional government institutions show that from the beginning of 2006 until November of the same year, nearly 1,200 students from other parts of the country have been admitted to Kurdistan universities. That figure is growing on a daily basis as the number of people fleeing violence the in central and southern parts of Iraq continues to rise.

"This year we have been forced to admit students more than our initial plan," Dr. Mohammed Sabir, head of the Planning Department in the Ministry of Higher Education of Kurdistan's Regional Government, told IPS.

"If this wave of new students is going to continue, then we have to postpone the [course of] study for some of them to next year, since we cannot accommodate all these students," he said.

Kurdistan's universities are already grappling with demonstrations and strikes from students protesting the inadequate facilities. Many believe there is a systematic terror campaign designed to bring Iraq's academic life to a halt.

In the latest incident of violence, 70 students were killed on Jan. 17 in a series of bombings that targeted Baghdad's al-Mustansiriyah University, one of the country's largest scientific centres. Following that incident, more students and academic staff are expected to abandon their universities.

In November last year, in the biggest kidnapping operation since the war began, more than 150 employees and visitors in an office of Iraq's Higher Education Ministry in Baghdad were abducted. Many of them were later killed, while others were released.

The mass kidnapping led to the temporary shutdown of most universities. Although Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki eventually ordered the educational institutions to be reopened, academic life in the capital has been tense and unreliable ever since.

According to figures from Brussels Tribunal, a non-governmental organization tracking academics killed in Iraq's violence, over the past three years, more than 250 Iraqi academics have been killed and hundreds more have disappeared.

Some of the more affluent professors are leaving for neighboring countries, especially those on the Persian Gulf. Others prefer to move to Kurdistan.

Many of the students in the predominantly Kurdish cities of the north face difficulties in learning the Kurdish language, commonly used in local universities for communication and, in many cases, teaching.

Wafa Mosuli, a 23-year-old college student of Kurdish descent, fled Mosul after the sectarian strife between the city's Kurds and Sunni Arabs intensified in late 2005 and early 2006. She now studies archeology at Arbil's Salahaddin University.

Seven of her neighbors and one of her classmates were killed during a week of clashes in their neighborhood.

She now has problems communicating with her mainly Kurdish classmates and some professors, which she hopes to overcome quickly.

While the "unbearable situation" in the city forced her to leave, she feels nostalgic for the friends and streets she left behind. Many like her doubt that they will get another chance to return to their old communities.

"If I tell you that I cry every single day, it is still not enough, because I was forced to leave all my memories, friends and childhood behind," Wafa said sadly. "If I get a sense that it (the situation) is going to improve, I will run from here to Mosul barefoot."

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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