Baghdad University ‘almost’ back to business as usual

One month into the new academic year and education at the sprawling University of Baghdad is as near to normal as it has been for years – the grisly killings of two professors and two students aside.Educators at the tree-lined, garden-sprinkled campus on the banks of the Tigris River are upbeat that 2007-2008 will restore the university’s reputation for excellence that it has enjoyed since it was established 50 years ago.

Student numbers – both Shiite and Sunni – are back to near capacity, they say, many vacant lecturing posts have been filled and the kind of sectarian violence in Baghdad which virtually wrote off last year’s academic efforts has dipped significantly.

“We could say the situation is about as normal as is possible, given the circumstances,” said a 24-year-old lecturer in soil science, who despite his bubbling optimism would give his name only as Salah and declined to be photographed.

“Last year was the worst ever – sometimes no one would turn up for lectures for an entire week. On average we had eight to 10 students out of around 20 arriving for laboratory. This year it is around 15. Sometimes we even get a full class of 20,” said Salah, sporting a striped orange shirt and slicked-back hair.

“There has been a vast improvement in the security situation,” he said, repeating a refrain that has begun to echo right across the Iraqi capital.

US commanders attribute the fall in bombings, shootings and death squad murders to a “surge” of an extra 28,500 American troops on the streets of Baghdad and its surrounding violent belts since June.

The more cynical say the city of four million people has simply been polarised into a maze of Shiite and Sunni enclaves off limits to anyone from a rival sect and that the “ethnic cleansing” of neighbourhoods is more or less complete.

Most students interviewed by AFP on the campus in the capital’s central Jadriya neighbourhood acknowledged they take circuitous routes to reach the university – avoiding either Sunni or Shiite neighbourhoods, depending on their own ethnic allegiances.

“I dare not go through Al Amel neighbourhood,” said a woman student from behind dark sunglasses, referring to a southwestern suburb which is under the control of Shiite militiamen.

“I can’t take the most direct route – it is too dangerous,” said the fourth-year biology student, a Sunni, smiling nervously and refusing to give her name.

Chemistry master’s student Ahmed Al Maliki was happy to be named and was one of the few who said he took the most direct route possible to the campus, from the Sadr City Shiite ghetto in eastern Baghdad where he lives.

“There is a tangible improvement in the security situation,” said Maliki, the gigantic scorpion buckle on his black belt glinting in the morning sunshine.

“Some students didn’t turn up when the university reopened in early October but each day saw the numbers rise and now the classes are full,” said the 22-year-old student.

While he is adamant it is a whole lot easier getting around the capital than it was even just six months ago, he warns that lethal dangers still exist.

“In late September, three master’s students were travelling down Palestine Street [in central Baghdad] when unidentified gunmen opened fire on their car. Two were killed and one seriously injured.

“I have to admit that really shook me.”

The lack of professors – either killed or fled overseas – is affecting education at the campus, he believes.

“In the past there were seven professors in our faculty. Three of them have since been killed. Now there are only four – two of whom are not of sufficient experience to be able to lecture master’s students. Which leaves just two.” Up in an expansive office on the 13th floor of the campus administration, university media director Dr Intisar Al Suaidi does her best to paint a bright picture of education in 2007-2008 but admits she doesn’t yet have the statistics to give more than mere broad brushstrokes.

“Last year about 50 per cent of registered students on average turned up for lectures. This year the figure is around 90 per cent.” Suaidi, however, had no enrolment figures for the new academic year and instead offered a prospectus which showed that there were 57,500 students and 5,300 lecturers at Baghdad University in 2005 – before the violence spun out of control, taking students, lecturers and staff members with it over the abyss.

She was, however, able to say that 160 professors have been killed by insurgents – who have targeted academics, journalists, poets and intellectuals in particular – since the US invasion in 2003.

And that already this term another two have been shot dead, including Mohammad Al Otabi, professor of natural history and Khalil Nuaimi, a professor of engineering.

“Yes, things are back to normal,” said soil science lecturer Salah. “But maybe not totally normal yet.”

Check Also

My message to the new world

Amidst war and turbulence in our region, Iran’s political system demonstrated remarkable stability by conducting …