with Ali Al-Fadhily
BAGHDAD (IPS) The recent kidnapping of scores of academics in Baghdad
highlights the desperate situation of the educational system in occupied Iraq.
Armed men wearing Iraqi police uniforms abducted as many as 150 academics from
the Ministry of Higher Education on Tuesday.
Alaa Makki, the head of the Parliament's education committee called the action
a "national catastrophe" and the minister of higher education, Abed
Dhiab al-Ujaili, announced that teaching in all of Baghdad's universities would
be halted "until we find out what happened," and because "we
are not ready to lose more professors."
While 70 of the academics have been released since then, others remain missing.
Academics, along with other professionals, have been increasingly targeted
by sectarian violence which continues unchecked across much of Iraq. Thousands
of professors and university researchers have long since fled the war-torn country.
An administration manager of a large university in Baghdad spoke with IPS on
condition of anonymity: "Iraqi universities have turned into militia and
death squad headquarters... Pictures of clerics and sectarian flags all over
are not the only problem, but there is the interference of clerics and their
followers in everything."
The university employee, who said he fears for his life each day he goes to
work, explained that religious clerics now had the authority to "sack teachers
and students, forbid certain texts, impose certain uniforms and even arrest
and kill those who belong to other sects or those who object to their behavior."
He angrily added, "Our government seems to approve all that, as no security
office ever intervened to protect teachers and students or make any change to
Iraqi security forces have been accused of taking part in, or at least ignoring
several mass kidnappings, which are widely believed to have been carried out
by sectarian groups. The Sunni minority have blamed many of the kidnappings
on armed groups from what are now the dominant Shi'ite political parties, who
also control the Ministry of Interior.
The higher education ministry is currently headed by a member of the main Sunni
Arab political bloc.
The 2003 U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, with the broken promises
of reconstruction and rehabilitation of Iraq's educational system, have not
been the only cause of the current disaster.
UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) had
reported before the 1991 Gulf War that Iraq had one of the best educational
performances in the region. Literacy rates were extremely high and primary school
enrollment was 100 percent.
The number of schools in Iraq under the Saddam Hussein regime (1979-2003) increased
due to the compulsory learning law enacted in the 1970s. A huge campaign for
the eradication of illiteracy was organized and people had to send their children
to school to avoid legal repercussions.
The Ba'ath party had influence on the kind of subjects studied concerning religion.
In addition, education administrators and teachers preferred to join the ruling
party, mostly for job security, but they still had to be scientifically qualified
Being members of the Ba'ath party when the U.S.-led occupation began, particularly
when CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) Administrator Paul Bremer instituted
the "de-Ba'athification" plan, caused most teachers and administrators
to be fired, arrested or later to be assassinated by death squads and replaced
by others who were selected by new ruling parties, which tended to be Shi'ite
These factors, on top of the harsh economic sanctions and the current occupation,
have left Iraq's education system in shambles.
"The newly employed teachers are either selected for being members of
Islamic parties in power or those who paid bribes in order to get the job,"
a chief education supervisor in Baghdad told IPS, speaking on condition of anonymity.
He has managed to keep his job since he had never joined the Ba'ath Party,
and added that other problems had arisen because, "Some of them [teachers]
are too old to teach and others brought fraudulent graduation certificates that
we could not deny because they were sent to us by parties who have militias."
Billions of dollars were supposedly spent for rehabilitating schools that were
severely bombed by U.S. war planes during the 2003 invasion. However, the quality
of work by foreign contractors, such as Bechtel Corporation, and their subcontractors
was so poor that thousands of schools across the country remain in a state of
Most of the money was spent on repainting and supplying the schools with cheap
equipment that has not stood for long.
"The money for rebuilding schools just vanished between the U.S.-appointed
Iraqi Governing Council and the western contractors and so we still need a lot
to be done," Abdel Aziz, an education manager told IPS, "We are doing
our best to facilitate the educational operation, but we are facing a great
deal of problems with the capacity of our schools and teachers."
Another problem in some areas is the misuse of school buildings. People in
conflict-ridden areas like Ramadi and parts of Baghdad have complained that
US soldiers use school buildings as combat posts, especially for snipers.
Other schools are used by militias and death squads in areas of Baghdad and
southern provinces of Iraq.
Today, security is perhaps the major problem facing the education system. Teachers
and students find it too dangerous to move between their homes and schools under
such a chaotic security situation. Further complicating matters, there is great
fear of abduction for ransom and an even greater of for assassination by death
And the poor state of Iraq's economy has exacerbated the situation.
"There is no possible way for me to cover school expenses," Omar
Jassim told IPS. Father of four from Baghdad, Jassim said, "I am unemployed
and life became too expensive, as well as the high school bus fare and clothes
for the children. I had to cut them from school and make them help me provide
food for the family."
Many families have decided not to send their children to school and have instead
pushed them to work as cleaning boys or beggars in the streets.
Last month Iraq's Ministry of Education released statistics which indicated
that only 30 percent of Iraq's 3.5 million students were attending classes.
This is less than half the number from the previous year, which, according to
the Britain-based non-governmental organization Save the Children, was 75 percent
Attendance rates for the new school year which started on Sept. 20 were at
a record low, according to the ministry.
According to the Ministry of Education, 2006 has been the worst year for school
attendance since U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. The immediate prewar level
of attendance in 2003 was nearly 100 percent.
At least 270 academics have been killed during the occupation, according to
the Iraq study group Brussels Tribunal.
(Inter Press Service)