The bomb that tore through Mustansiriya University in January
killed some 70 people including many female students and marked
a new low in the Iraq's long struggle to build a new post-Saddam
Hussein educational system.
Despite the carnage, the death count would have likely been higher
if not for the endemically low attendance across southern Iraq.
In December, the Iraq Students and Youth League estimated a 6
percent attendance rate at Baghdad University, stemming from the
threat of violence and kidnapping to students, faculty and education
ministry staff. Schools at every level in the Anbar and Diyala
provinces are shut down because of deficient security.
to tallies from international human rights groups and Iraqi officials,
between 169 and 300 academics were assassinated between 2003 and
2006. Many were killed for their perceived moderate or un-Islamic
Tolls for primary and secondary school teachers run even higher,
with at least 300 reports of teachers killed in 2006 alone.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees categorized these killing
as "systematic." Abdul Jawad, a former department chair
at al-Mustansiriya, went so far as to call schools the most dangerous
places in Iraq.
"The campuses mainly are overruled by the fanatic students,
religious animals, militias. They harass and threaten and kill.
... They don't want education," said Jawad, who recently
fled Iraq after narrowly missing a bomb attack that destroyed
the English-language Baghdad Mirror newspaper he founded.
The Brookings Institution and officials from the Ministry of
Higher Education now estimate that 40 percent of professionals
have left Iraq, depleting the country's academic infrastructure.
Jawad left in October 2005, following thousands of other professors
who left during post-Persian Gulf war sanctions.
Decline of the education system
The World Bank now estimates a basic
literacy rate of 60 percent, a 20 percent drop from 2003. Before
2003, schools enjoyed near 100 percent attendance; in the current
academic year, estimates from Save the Children, UNICEF and Iraq's
Ministry of Education put 20 percent to 30 percent of Iraq's 3.5
million public school students at home, in fear.
Iraq's school system, once seen as a model of Arab education,
has been in continuous decline after 25 years of wars and sanctions.
Despite hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid for
education since 2004, indicators show a precipitous drop in quality
since the 2003 invasion.
"In Baghdad, parents are choosing between education and
safety," said Maman Sidikou, a senior project officer for
education with UNICEF, who believes the effects of sectarian violence
will echo for generations through Iraq's weakened education system.
Sidikou said girls are kept home in higher numbers than boys,
which could affect women's rights in the social and political
life of future Iraq. For boys, the concern is greater in the short
"We are well aware [that] the 12 to 18 year olds, left alone,
with no education, with no occupation, would go and would most
probably be enlisted by the insurgent groups," Sidikou said.
Many schools are still missing the basics -- electricity, drinking
water, sanitation and, Sidikou said, separate areas for girls.
Teachers are missing the tools of instruction -- desks, maps,
pens and paper -- and many have not received pedagogical training
since the early 1980s.
In 2003, the World Bank said 80 percent of Iraq's 15,000 schools
were in need of repair.
As of late 2006, about one-third had been rebuilt, short of the
original goals laid out by the Iraq Reconstruction and Relief
And rebuilt schools become targets for bombing and looting. The
United Nations recently reported that rockets hit five of their
rehabilitated schools and that unknown gunmen kidnapped five primary
Sidikou says timelines for school rehabilitation have stretched
from three months to nine months as violence continues to impede
work and as inflation makes it more costly. A school that cost
$45,000 to build two years ago, now costs $90,000, according to
the UN Human Settlements Program.
He laments the lack of consistent international support and the
end of USAID contracts in 2006 that were instrumental in reintroducing
students to the education system, and keeping them out of harm's
UNICEF now says 4,000 schools are in need of reconstruction and
2,000 in need of rehabilitation.
"We have to think of alternative ways to just take care
of business. ... Children cannot afford to wait for a better time
to come [to school]," he said.
Higher education woes have paralleled those of the
primary and secondary schools. A 2005 UN report found that more
than 80 percent of higher education buildings had been at best
robbed and at worst destroyed.
Tahir Albakaa, former president of the recently bombed al-Mustansiriya,
was forced to close graduate university programs because of the
destruction of lab space and libraries as well as the unavailability
Funds once allocated by the Iraqi government to university rebuilding
were marked for security efforts as insurgent violence escalated,
further hindering the recovery of the higher education system.
But in March, a group including Barham Salah, a deputy prime
minister in Iraq, is planning to break ground on an American University
of Iraq, where Arab students would have the chance to learn about
democracy, Western philosophy and compromise.
"I think that's a good goal," said Albakaa, who, as
the former minister of higher education, had sought ways to introduce
foreign education into Iraq while retaining its countrymen.
"The main goal is to create a league that will hopefully
be the leaders of Iraq. And we think that that cannot be created
by keeping on doing the same," said Azzam Alwash, the executive
secretary of the university's board of trustees.
The university would be built in Sulamaniya, in Iraqi Kurdistan,
far from the violence of Baghdad and Iraq's south.
The safety appeals to professors like Jawad, now teaching as
a visiting lecturer at Duke, who is determined to return to Iraq
and who says he's been approached to teach at the American University.
"I want to serve my country and students, actually. I pray
to go back to my school and my students," Jawad said.