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'Tortured, Shot Ambushed ... ' Iraq's Academics
Published on Friday, March 10, 2006 by the Times (UK)
'Tortured, Shot Ambushed ... ' Iraq's Academics
Tortured, shot, ambushed, victims are found dumped outside morgues. What is happening to Iraq's intellectuals is chilling
by Felicity Arbuthnot
 

Dr. Mohammed Tuki Hussein Al Talakani, Dr. Eman Younis, Dr. Jammour Khammas, Dr. Mohammed Washed, Professor Wajeeh Mahjoub, Professor Sabri Al Bayati, Professor Laila Al Saad, Professor Muneer Al Khiero, Professor Emad Sarsaan, Professor Mohammed Al Rawi, Professor Munim AlIzmerly, Dr. Ali Al NaasI.

The horrific killings of Iraqi intellectuals listed above have left suspicions that occupying forces may be behind some of the cases.

It is estimated that between 250 and 500 intellectuals have been killed or have disappeared since the fall of Saddam Hussein. There is a rising surge of anger over attacks on Iraq's intellectuals and many believe some of the killings may be part of a deliberate policy of targeting those who speak out against the "occupation".

A prominent, internationally respected Iraqi academic, who cannot reveal his or her identity for fear of repercussions, says: "Under the American and British occupation, Iraqi academics are being forced out of their jobs and their country under the veil of politics. This is especially true for female Iraqi academics, who once made up nearly half of Iraqi academics in higher institutions and now fear for their lives and the lives of their families. In and outside the workplace they are being targeted by extremists and by the occupiers - more than 200 prominent Iraqi academics have been assassinated in the past three years alone. Those who are not assassinated are abducted or forced out of the country. Iraq is suffering from a huge brain drain that will not be compensated for another 20 years. This is a dramatic loss for the country and, without Iraq's educated middle class, we will be sure to see a rise in sectarianism and extremism, which is what the occupier wants."

The situation is compounded by the absence of foreign journalists who reported on the UN embargo against Iraq from 1990-2003 and who have been warned that their lives may be at risk if they return to the country.

Those whose loved ones have been killed are similarly afraid to speak out for fear of reprisals. It is hard to know who is behind the killings and abductions as very few of the cases are investigated. But the information available is fuelling suspicions that Western forces may be to blame in some cases.

When I was in Iraq during the embargo, one of the people I met was a doctor and fellow of Britain's Royal College of Physicians. His concern was the rise of a rare and rapidly presenting bone cancer. He introduced me to patients and their families and was desperate for knowledge of and access to the latest treatments - vetoed under the embargo. Inflation was stratospheric and, although he had formerly been reasonably well paid, his family was suffering. He had money in a British bank account and gave me the account details so I could get some money out for him. Iraqis are the proudest of people. It was painful for him to reveal his plight to me, and to give me his bank details displayed trust. He needed that hard currency.

But it was all to no avail as even private accounts were frozen. His name is now on the list of Iraqi intellectuals who have been killed since the overthrow of Saddam.

During the 13-year embargo, many academics were forced to leave Iraq, seeking positions in countries with more stable currency, which they could send back to sustain their families. Some Iraqis saw this as a deliberate strategy by the West to deprive a country proud of its intellectual heritage as "the cradle of civilization" of the critical voices that might oppose Western attempts to take control of the region.

The embargo's brain drain proved a weighty challenge for academia in Iraq, but what is happening to Iraqi intellectuals now is chilling, with people from the entire spectrum of Iraq's professional class dragged from homes, offices and consulting rooms. Tortured, shot, ambushed or simply disappeared, they are found dumped outside hospitals, morgues, slumped over car wheels, on refuse dumps, or in the streets.

The Brussels Tribunal, set up in the tradition of the 1967 Russell Tribunal and backed by the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, is looking into war crimes in Iraq and has held hearings and heard testimony from expert witnesses from around the world. It is trying to piece together the facts concerning killings of civilians in Iraq and has verified the names and circumstances of 143 people. Thirty-one of these are professors and 100 are doctors, surgeons, medical specialists or people holding doctorates in other disciplines.

The list is long and varied. It includes Mohammed Tuki Hussein Al Talakani, a nuclear physicist, shot dead in Baghdad just before Christmas 2004; Eman Younis, a lecturer at the College of Art at Baghdad University; Jammour Khammas, a lecturer at Basra College of Art; Mohammed Washed, a tourism lecturer; Wajeeh Mahjoub, a lecturer in physical education; and Sabri Al Bayati, a faculty member of the College of Art, Baghdad University. Laila Al Saad and her husband Muneer Al Khiero, dean and faculty member respectively of Mosul University College of Law, lived together, worked together and were killed together. Two of those murdered in the months following the fall of Saddam were Emad Sarsaan and Mohammed Al Rawi, who was also chairman of the Iraqi Union of Physicians. Both were fellows of Britain's Royal College of Surgeons and distinguished board members of the Arab and Iraqi Boards of Medicine. Experts in paediatrics, oncology, ophthalmology, pharmacology, dentistry, cardiology, neurology, as well as hospital directors and administrators, have all been killed, kidnapped or have fled from death threats.

That the list is incomplete is incontrovertible, with credible reports citing the killings of more than 80 academics from Baghdad University. In the past two weeks alone, 12 more intellectuals have been added to the Brussels Tribunal list. They include the eminent Shia political analyst Ali Al Naas, a US critic who was shot dead in Baghdad on January 27. There are "no leads to his assassination".

The Independent's veteran Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk, no conspiracy theorist, wrote on July 14, 2004: "University staff suspect there is a campaign to strip Iraq of its academics to complete the destruction of Iraq's cultural heritage, which began when America entered Baghdad." Some suspect experts in particular areas have been targeted. For instance, several agricultural experts, who could testify to the effects of bombing on the environment, have been killed.

Speaking at a meeting in London in February, Sa'ad Jawad, professor of political science at Baghdad University who heads Iraq's University Professors Association, said some of the academic victims appeared to have been targeted because of links to the Baath regime, but others seemed to have been victims of a campaign to eliminate any potential to develop further scientific and intelligence programmes. He added that there were obvious questions about who would have the ability, and the political support, to carry out such attacks with impunity. With few cases being investigated, what is certain is that under the occupation's watch, a massive cull of Iraq's great academic wealth has taken place. That the occupying forces themselves have been responsible for some of the incidents is well documented. The Guardian reported, for instance, how Munim Al Izmerly, a distinguished chemist, died after his home was raided by the US military in April 2003. He was on the US's 200 "most wanted" list and was accused of meeting Saddam, although Saddam routinely summoned academics for meetings and "no" was not an option. He gave himself up the day after his home was raided. His family were informed the following February that he had died in custody of "brain stem compression". An autopsy found that he had been hit from behind and that his skull had been fractured.

On the Brussels Tribunal website, journalist Saba Ali writes of two doctors, Walid Al Obeide and Jamil Abbar, who were held by US troops in Haditha for a week in May 2005. He says that at one point Dr Abbar was lying on the floor when a soldier came in, kicked him in the head and left.

Ali records in words and with photographs the injuries, swellings and extensive haematomas they allegedly suffered.

Reuters reported in January that the Association of Muslim Scholars in the Umm Al-Qora Mosque complex in western Baghdad had been ransacked and crucifixes scrawled on its walls. The association is made up of an influential group of Sunni scholars, and its leaders have called on US forces to withdraw from Iraq.

Layla Asamarai, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology in the US, tells how her uncle, a prisoner of war in Iran for 16 years, was shot by US troops on his way to a business meeting in Samarra in January. In her anguish, she reflects a poignant view, which the West would do well to heed. "My Uncle Abdulrazak is not the only one; thousands have died in this way," she says. "This is the face of American terrorism... an Iraqi civilian, working hard to support his family, forced to live his life in the midst of an American occupation and dumped like road kill. What makes their lives more worth living? Is it the cross that hangs on their necks? My uncle's murderers will come home to their families... but in their soiled hearts they will carry with them the ugliness of what they have done."

Jawad says of the list of academic victims: "Not one single crime has been brought to justice. We have gone to the UN, US and UK ambassadors, the Arab League. No one cares. Murders reported to the Americans always elicit the same response: 'Oh, but he was a Baathist.'"

Indeed, 4,000 university employees were sacked after the fall of Saddam for alleged membership of his Baath Party, which advocated pan-Arab nationalism, although experts on Iraq say many of the academics joined the party only to further their careers. Jawad says the occupying forces are also trying to interfere with what universities teach. He claims the US Army captain in charge of Baghdad University tried to influence the syllabus, demanded that maps of the Middle East with Palestine on them be removed and tried unsuccessfully to close down the Institute of Palestinian Studies.

But despite this interest, no money has been put into higher education, he says. "We are using books from the 1980s and whatever small items we have are brought in from outside," he said. "Millions of dollars have been spent setting up new prisons in Iraq - $1.3 billion has been spent on security, but not $1 on a book, a desk or education."

Felicity Arbuthnot has written and broadcast widely on Iraq. She was senior researcher for John Pilger's award-winning documentary Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq and co-authored Baghdad in the Great Cities educational series for World Almanac Books. The Brussels Tribunal will be handing its documentation to the UN Commission for Human Rights among others. It is urging student groups, medical organizations, hospitals, universities and academic bodies to support their Iraqi colleagues.

© 2006 Times Newspapers Ltd.

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