By Robert Fisk in Baghdad
14 July 2004
The Mongols stained the Tigris black with the ink of the Iraqi books they destroyed. Today's Mongols prefer to destroy the Iraqi teachers of books.
Since the Anglo-American invasion, they have murdered at least 13 academics at the University of Baghdad alone and countless others across Iraq. History professors, deans of college and Arabic tutors have all fallen victim to the war on learning. Only six weeks ago - virtually unreported, of course - the female dean of the college of law in Mosul was beheaded in her bed, along with her husband.
Just who the modern-day Mongols are remains a painful mystery of our story. Disgruntled students they are not. Baathist-hunters some of them might be - all heads of academic departments were forced to join Saddam's party - but none of the murdered Baghdad university staff were believed to be anything more than card-carriers.
Even the former president of the university, Dr Mohamed Arawi - a surgeon shot at his clinic a year ago - was regarded as a liberal, humane man. But professors now watch the doors of their lecture theatres as carefully as they do their students. And who can blame them? After all, Dr Sabri al-Bayatiy of the department of geography was shot dead only a month ago, just outside the arts department, in front of many of his students.
"He was gunned down just over there by the wall," one of his colleagues told me yesterday. "Many students saw his killer but they could do nothing. Two bullets. That's all."
Talk to the academics at Baghdad University, and the names roll out. Dr Nafa Aboud of the department of Arabic was murdered just two months ago. Dr Hissam Sharif of the department of history was sitting at the door of his Baghdad home when the killers came, shooting him and two friends.
Dr Falah al-Dulaimi, assistant dean of college at Mustansariya University in Baghdad, was shot in his college office last year.
"What can we do?" Saad Hassani of Baghdad University's English department asked me. "Just a month ago, my son Ali - a student in our biology department - was kidnapped. He walked outside the campus on a hot day, took a taxi and the driver offered him a drink of cold water. Then he lost consciousness. When he came to he was in a dark room, blindfolded, and they beat him and tortured him with electricity.
"Then he heard two groups of men arguing, one lot saying, 'You've got the wrong one'. They threw him out of a car beside a road. But at least they didn't kill him. He will not leave his home now. He flunked his exams. What am I to think?"
Other university staff suspect that there is a campaign to strip Iraq of its academics, to complete the destruction of Iraq's cultural identity which began with the destruction of the Baghdad Koranic library, the national archives and the looting of the archaeological museum when the American army entered Baghdad.
"Maybe the Kuwaitis want to take their revenge for what we did to them in 1991," a lecturer said. "Maybe the Israelis are trying to make sure that we can never have an intellectual infrastructure here.
"Yes, you suggest it could be the 'resistance'. But what is the 'resistance'? We don't know who it is. Is it nationalist? Why should they want to get rid of us? Is it religious? The arts department has become a pulpit for Islamism. But these people are part of the university."
In the southern city of Nasiriyah, many departmental heads have received threatening letters, ordering them to leave Iraq. At least one professor in the university has been murdered. The dean of the college of law in Mosul, murdered last month, was the most gruesome killing. "She was in bed with her husband when they came for her," a Baghdad colleague told me yesterday. "They coolly shot both of them in their bed. Then they cut off both their heads with knives."
Both arts and science faculty members have been victims. Dr Abdul-Latif al-Maya was working in urban planning in the Baghdad University geography department when he was killed at his home. Professor Wajih Mahjoub was murdered in the College of Physical Education in April last year as US troops were entering Baghdad.
"Dr Arawi told me only two days before he was murdered that he had nothing to fear," a friend of his recalled yesterday. "He said, 'I never hurt anyone. Everyone respects me.' On the day of his death, the killers came claiming to be patients. They shot him in his surgery."
In the early weeks of his occupation proconsulship, Paul Bremer fired all senior academics who were members of the Baath party. "They went home and tried to leave the country," another Baghdad arts professor complained. "But those who stayed are now mostly too frightened to return because they have been named - and they fear for their lives."
Yesterday morning, I visited one arts department at the university to find it entirely empty of staff. Each teacher's room was closed with a large padlock.