BAGHDAD - As U.S.-British invasion forces gather, Muayad al-Wandawi, a modern history professor at Baghdad University, says Iraq has always been prey to Western ambitions.
Wandawi sees U.S. and British policies through a historical prism that refracts long-standing colonial impulses to control Iraq's land, people and vast oil resources.
He recalls how Britain, then ruling Iraq under a League of Nations mandate, installed a monarchy in 1921, when a British warship brought Faisal, a Hashemite son of the Hejaz, in what is now Saudi Arabia, to become king of the new country.
Wandawi tells his political science students that the United States now plans to install its own puppet ruler in Baghdad.
His colleague, Abdel-Kader Mohammad Fahmi, teaches political strategy, with an Iraqi perspective on U.S. thinking.
"I am teaching my students the principles of the Pentagon policy -- that America's concept of security has become unethical, invisible and with no boundaries," he said.
"It is open to interpretation and is based on opportunism and interests. American policy is a policy of dictation and imposition. It interferes with our daily life," he added.
Smarting from the penury, humiliation and isolation inflicted by U.N. sanctions, Wandawi, like many Iraqis, blames the United States and Britain for the 12-year-old embargo.
"I feel that I am being robbed under the cover of the United Nations. The American soldiers should stay with their families rather than allow themselves to be used in this dirty game by leaders who have personal political ambitions," he said.
Such views may seem unsurprising in a country where dissent is ferociously suppressed, but there is no mistaking the pain and anger felt by Wandawi at the way sanctions have narrowed his horizons and stunted Iraq's once-vaunted universities.
LENTILS AND BEANS
"The embargo is the most humiliating thing. I'm a university professor. I have a Ph.D. How can I be neutral toward America when every month I have to go and get my food rations to feed my kids?" he asked.
The government distributes food rations bought under the U.N. oil-for-food program to most of Iraq's 23 million people.
"We've been eating lentils and beans for 12 years now. Life should not be like that," said Wandawi, who earned a degree in international relations at Britain's Reading University.
"The war is coming. All this scenario at the United Nations is cosmetic," he told Reuters at his office on campus.
The United Nations imposed trade sanctions on Iraq for its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. They cannot be removed before U.N. weapons inspectors declare Iraq free of chemical, biological, nuclear and long-range missile programs which it agreed to dismantle under the 1991 Gulf War cease-fire terms.
President Bush and his ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, say Iraq has had long enough to obey U.N. disarmament demands and may now have to be disarmed by force.
Iraqi academics, once comfortably off, have fallen into poverty under sanctions and seen their once sophisticated and pioneering education system disintegrate before their eyes.
Renowned across the Arab world, Iraqi intellectuals can no longer afford to buy books. Worse still, they have had to sell their own volumes to supplement their meager incomes.
"The cheapest book in London now costs 10 pounds ($15) which means I cannot afford to buy it," said Wandawi, who has seen his monthly wage wither to $150 from $1,000 in 1990.
"The best presents I receive from my foreign friends are books. As soon as any professor gets a book from abroad, we pass it on to each other to photocopy it so we can still read."
RAVAGES OF POVERTY
Iraq once prided itself on the highest literacy rates in the Arab world. These have not survived the poverty that has forced many school and university students to drop out.
Even primary schools are affected. According to the U.N. Children's Fund, one in four of Iraqi children aged from 6 to 11 is now staying away from school. The figure for girls alone is 30 percent, an ominous indicator for the future.
Although the Iraqi government provides free education, many students cannot pay for books, notebooks and pens.
"You could notice the economic effects on students from the old torn clothes they wear," Wandawi said. "They stopped eating at the cafeteria. They even stopped buying soft drinks which cost 250 dinars ($0.11)."
"We also noticed that men were dropping out to find jobs to help their parents. This is why the university started evening shifts to allow working young men to continue their studies.
"The number of students in the evening shift is now far higher than in the morning shifts," he said.
Wandawi, in his 40s, comes from a generation of academics mostly educated in Britain and the United States in the 1980s when Iraq could still afford to fund foreign scholarships.
"Iraqis do not have a historical enmity with the United States," he said. "I have no problem with the American citizen. My problem is with American policy."
Younger academics, who studied in Baghdad, voiced the same suspicion of U.S. motives.
"America has taken a decision to wage war and the pretexts can be simple. It can create a crisis at any moment and start attacking Iraq," said Hassan Hussein, a philosophy lecturer.
One of his colleagues, who asked not to be named, said: "Do you really believe that America, which is capable of monitoring with its satellites everything around the globe, cannot find where Iraq is hiding weapons of mass destruction?
"The real pretext is different from the declared one. It is just that God has given us oil."
©2003 Reuters Ltd