Baghdad; Jan. 25, 2004 – As a result of the UN-led sanctions, the US-led invasion of Iraq in March, 2003 and the looting which followed, the Iraqi education system is suffering. Iraqis complain that after years of internationally-induced decay, outside assistance has been lacking during the period of occupation. In many ways, say Iraqi academics, the situation has worsened for students and faculty since occupation began.
One student, Ahmed Nalin, put it this way: "The US takes from us. They do simple work on some of the schools on the main streets for people to see, but most of the schools, like ours, are left destroyed. Then they exaggerate what they have done -- making it look like a lot, when it has been very little. Maybe they do simple things, but they take more than they give."
In 1982 Iraq was awarded the UNESCO prize for eradicating illiteracy, as well as being credited with having created one of the strongest school systems in the Middle East. Unlike most Middle Eastern school systems, Iraqi education under Saddam Husseinâ€™s Baâ€™athist Party was largely secular.
While the quality of Iraqâ€™s educational system was initially worsened as a result of the war with Iran (1980-88), during the period of the sanctions the educational system suffered dramatically. Due to the strangulation of funds and to the sanctionsâ€™ prohibition of various school supplies, the lack of updated research materials and learning technologies kept universities in Iraq in a holding pattern. Few textbooks found in Iraqi university libraries are dated later than 1991.
"The Americans never give us any help here. Why is that? The Americans are eager to make political changes, but they have done nothing for the students here. I donâ€™t think they will ever change this for us." -- Muhammed Hassim, PhD student at Baghdad University
At the same time, the country experienced drastic population growth from around 19 million people in 1990 to 25 million in 2002.
The Iraqi Ministry of Education estimated (1999-2000) that construction of 6,648 new primary and secondary schools were needed to keep up with population growth. In the same period it was estimated that 5,940 schools required rehabilitation or maintenance, according to the United Nations Office of the Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq.
In the aftermath of the US-led invasion last spring, the looting that engulfed Baghdad also left the Iraqi educational facilities in terrible shape.
Four buildings at the University of al-Mustansariyah in Baghdad were completely looted and burned. Sabah Hashit, Assistant Manager of the University Library, said of the looting in April 2003, "Computers, copy machines, over 20,000 books, furniture, lights and even carpets were taken."
Saba Al-Ammar, a research assistant at the same university for PhD and Masterâ€™s candidates before the war, said, "Most of our science students havenâ€™t resumed their research because they lost all of their research resources. We have had no help from the CPA [Coalition Provision Authority] or anyone else. We used money from the Iraqi Ministry of Finance to replace what we could by going to the market ourselves."
Al-Ammar said she has not been paid for her job since prior to the war, and stated, "America has put itself in a situation it could not have imagined. It has failed to control Iraq. Even the B.A. students here are not able to carry out their research because they lack the resources they need."
Mohammed Abrahim, who drove a taxi in Baghdad at the time al-Mustansariyah was looted, said he watched the university looted for 7 days as thieves stole everything. He says, "I watched them take computer monitors because they thought they were T.V. sets. They took light bulbs, chairs, fans, everything you can think of."
Ali Hamdan, the manager of the Alwi Qar Construction Company, currently has a team working on rebuilding one of the looted buildings on the campus of al-Mustansariyah. "We are getting paid by the University to do this. I think they are getting paid by a U.S. company, but I donâ€™t know how much money they have given them for this project. I know we are getting paid very little, but we need the work. That is why we are here."
Dr. Hassan Kamel is a Professor of Biochemistry. He states, "Most of our instruments from the labs were stolen or broken. We have nothing we need to teach and allow the students to perform the practical side of their studies. Theoretical teaching is all we have been able to give them."
Studying for a Masterâ€™s Degree in Arabic Language at al-Mustansariyah University in Baghdad, Ahmed Nalin expressed frustration towards the lack of fulfilled promises he has experienced, "Many people from the US and Europe have promised us books and instruments, but so far these have only been empty promises."
Muhammed Hassim, 34 years old, a PhD student at Baghdad University studying the Parliamentary Development of England, states, "Our schools were looted and burned during the war and most of our books are gone as a result. I have to come to the Friday book market now to try to find my resources. And now they are very expensive."
Hassim said that even under the rule of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi University students were allowed to travel abroad to study, but now under American occupation, they are not.
He says, "The Americans never give us any help here. Why is that? The Americans are eager to make political changes, but they have done nothing for the students here. I donâ€™t think they will ever change this for us."
Afir Mohammed Shihab, who is studying for his PhD in Arabic language says, "I have not been able to work on my PhD for one year now because of this terrible situation. Iâ€™ve traveled throughout Iraq trying to do research for my studies, and all of our libraries are in terrible shape. I hate the thought of leaving my country, but I will as soon as I get the chance because I have to."
This highlights a disturbing trend of "intellectual flight" that occurs so often in countries after periods of war. Intellectual flight refers to the tendency of writers, scientists and experts to flee their homeland after a war in order to work and study in other countries.
He also expresses his frustration towards the US occupiers for not rebuilding his university library so he can commence his studies. He says, "We received so many promises from them, but it is so cloudy here now. Even if they do end up keeping their promises, it is only because we have the oil they want. I see American soldiers with brand new books and magazines, but I am not able to work on my PhD."