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Nature UK: Scientists become targets in Iraq

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  • Aniruddha Das
    News Nature 441, 1036-1037 (29 June 2006) | doi:10.1038/4411036a; Published online 28 June 2006 Special Report Scientists become targets in Iraq Top of page
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 1, 2006
      News

      Nature 441, 1036-1037 (29 June 2006) |
      doi:10.1038/4411036a; Published online 28 June 2006
      Special Report
      Scientists become targets in Iraq
      Top of page
      Abstract

      Violence is common currency in Iraq, but one
      group is increasingly and persistently singled
      out — academics. Declan Butler reports on the
      risks run by researchers as they struggle to pursue their studies.

      A chemist's mutilated body dumped on a street in
      Basra; a physicist shot twice in the back in
      Baghdad; a dean of engineering kidnapped by a hit
      squad, his body left on his wife's doorstep. Each
      week brings reports from Iraq of assassinations
      or kidnappings of scientists, academics and
      intellectuals, in what many argue is a systematic
      effort to eliminate or exile a group crucial to the country's reconstruction.

      One of the first academics murdered was Muhammad
      al-Rawi, president of Baghdad University,
      assassinated in his clinic by a hit squad on 27
      July 2003. In the chaos of Iraq, precise body
      counts are impossible, but observers have
      recorded several hundred assassinations of
      academics, with the rate of killings increasing
      over the past 18 months (see 'Victims of
      violence'). More than 2,000 scientists are thought to have fled abroad.

      Lack of investigation and prosecutions means
      little is known about the motives of the killers.
      Dlawer Ala'Aldeen, an Iraqi microbiologist at the
      University of Nottingham, UK, cautions that it is
      generally impossible to attribute assassinations to any one cause or group.
      Unfortunately we are unable to provide accessible
      alternative text for this. If you require
      assistance to access this image, or to obtain a
      text description, please contact npg@...

      D. VRANIC/AP

      Military forces are a common sight at Baghdad
      University's campus, pictured here and below.

      Some academics were part of the apparatus of
      Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party and were victims of
      revenge, particularly in the aftermath of Hussein's fall, says Ala'Aldeen.

      But he believes there is now a broader range of
      political drivers. "The universities reflect the
      power struggles among the various groups in wider
      society," he says, with a war being waged between
      secular, Islamic and other factions. "It's so
      easy these days to lose your life in Iraq."

      The breakdown in security and stability under the
      US occupation has also led to spiralling levels
      of organized crime and corruption. Mohamed
      Al-Rubeai, an Iraqi chemical engineer at
      University College Dublin, Ireland, thinks
      academics are killed simply as part of wider
      attempts by "terrorists and Ba'athists" to target
      anyone trying to restore normality in Iraqi society.

      Nonetheless, many scientists — including
      Ala'Aldeen — are convinced that academics are
      being singled out. "Some of these murders are
      instigated by greed and criminality," says Rafid
      Alkhaddar, a water engineer at Liverpool John
      Moores University, UK. "But I and a vast number
      of Iraqis believe that there is an organized
      campaign to eliminate any remaining intellectuals inside Iraq."
      Unfortunately we are unable to provide accessible
      alternative text for this. If you require
      assistance to access this image, or to obtain a
      text description, please contact npg@...

      M. SWARUP/AP

      "Terrorist forces are out to scare the scientific
      community," agrees Abbas Al-Hussaini, a civil
      engineer at the University of Westminster, UK,
      and general-secretary of the Iraq Higher
      Education Organizing Committee (IHEOC) in London,
      created in January 2004 to help reconstruct
      Iraq's devastated research and higher-education system.

      Scientists and academics in Iraq enjoy "much
      greater prestige and status than in the West, and
      could transform it into a modern society", says
      Al-Hussaini. "That is why they are being
      targeted." He too believes the main perpetrators
      are former members of the Ba'ath party.

      Some Ba'athists are also cynically highlighting
      the plight of academics "to imply that the
      situation is worse than under Saddam", he claims.
      "In one way it is, but under Saddam's brutal
      dictatorship people had no rights; the future is now more hopeful."

      Others take conspiracy theories further. The
      BRussells Tribunal, a Brussels-based people's
      court modelled on the Russell Tribunal, a US
      movement opposed to the Vietnam War, believes the
      killings are due to militia death squads
      associated with US forces. The tribunal is made
      up of prominent intellectuals, human-rights
      campaigners and non-governmental organizations,
      including linguist and left-wing campaigner Noam
      Chomsky, and Denis Halliday, former United
      Nations humanitarian coordinator in Iraq.

      The tribunal launched a petition in April, signed
      by many intellectuals including several Nobel
      prizewinners in literature, describing the
      killing of academics as the "decimation of the
      secular middle class — which has refused to be co-opted by the US occupation".

      Ophthalmic surgeon Ismail Jalili, former
      president of the UK Iraqi Medical Association and
      a member of the board of the British Arab Medical
      Association, takes a similar line. Jalili, who
      fled Iraq in 1969 after being imprisoned and
      tortured, says he believes many of the killings
      bear the "hallmark" of professionals (see 'Under the gun').

      But despite varying views about who is behind the
      killings, Iraqis agree that the assassinations
      are unlikely to stop soon, and that the targets
      need protection. Most killings take place on the
      way to or from work, so Mosa Al-Mosawe, president
      of Baghdad University, suggests building a
      residential complex on campus, with armed guards,
      to protect staff and their families.

      Foreign universities need to shelter Iraqi
      researchers who have received death threats, says
      Al-Hussaini. Since the fall of Baghdad,
      Ala'Aldeen has arranged for many Iraqis to work
      at the University of Nottingham. But many Western
      institutions are unaware of the issue, says
      Al-Hussaini. "Often it is only a matter of
      getting researchers and their families out for a
      few months," he says, to get them out of the line of fire.

      The insurgency has undermined university
      reconstruction efforts "beyond belief", says
      Ala'Aldeen. For the first time, this year no
      Iraqi students or staff are coming to Nottingham.
      "They don't reply to e-mails; their focus has
      gone; they can't plan; their lives are shattered."

      ADVERTISEMENT
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      "Under mayhem and terrorism, a very advanced
      academic system, the star of the Middle East, has
      been reduced to nothing," he says. "It's
      heartbreaking to see a bunch of bright academics
      who should be rebuilding unable to do so."

      One glimmer of hope is Kurdistan in the north of
      Iraq, where many of the country's scientists have
      moved. The region, which has been relatively
      autonomous from both Saddam Hussein and US
      forces, is a haven of relative security.
      University reconstruction is proceeding apace,
      and Ala'Aldeen intends to hold the next IHEOC
      conference there next April. "It's symbolic; it
      will be in Iraq," he says. "We are excited about it."

      ****************************************************************************************
      Box 1. Under the Gun
      From the following article:

      Scientists become targets in Iraq

      Nature 441, 1036-1037 (29 June 2006)

      doi:10.1038/4411036a
      BACK TO ARTICLE

      Hard figures on attacks in Iraq are hard to come
      by. Estimates for the number of attacks on
      academics between April 2003 and May 2006 vary
      from around 250 to more than 1,000. Ismail
      Jalili, an ophthalmic surgeon based in London,
      believes the figure is around 550. Out of 307
      reports that he analysed, he found the following:

      74% of attacks were fatal

      80% of attacks targeted university staff

      62% of victims were educated to PhD level

      31% of victims were scientists, 23% medics

      57% of attacks occurred in Baghdad, 14% in Basra, and 11% in Mosul

      ****************************************************************************************
      Box 2. Victims of Violence
      From the following article:

      Scientists become targets in Iraq

      Nature 441, 1036-1037 (29 June 2006)

      doi:10.1038/4411036a
      BACK TO ARTICLE

      Ali Hassan Mahawish

      Ali Hassan Mahawish, a materials researcher and
      dean of the engineering college at Mustansiriya
      University in Baghdad, had been working on a
      project to develop unified design codes for the
      country's huge reconstruction programme. "It was
      vitally important for all engineering design and
      construction work in Iraq," says Abbas
      Al-Hussaini, a civil engineer at the University
      of Westminster, UK, who was Mahawish's partner on
      the project. Both men had also worked since 2003
      on a scheme to twin researchers in Iraq with counterparts abroad.
      Unfortunately we are unable to provide accessible
      alternative text for this. If you require
      assistance to access this image, or to obtain a
      text description, please contact npg@...

      In February, as Mahawish was being driven to work
      with his wife, armed men intercepted the car and
      asked his wife and driver to leave, recalls
      Al-Hussaini. "They phoned with a ransom demand,
      but a few days later his wife found his body
      dumped outside her door." Al-Hussaini is
      convinced that Mahawish was killed because of his
      involvement in the reconstruction.

      In an obituary on 12 March, the Arab Science and
      Technology Foundation mourned Mahawish as "a
      distinguished Iraqi scientist and sincere
      academic". He had been one of 20 top Iraqi
      scientists selected by the foundation to work on
      research "that addresses the needs and priorities of the Iraqi community".

      Wissam Al-Hashimi

      At the American Association of Petroleum
      Geologists annual meeting in Paris in September
      last year, renowned Iraqi geologist Wissam
      Al-Hashimi was due to give a paper on carbonate
      reservoirs in Mesopotamia. His slot was filled
      instead with a memorial service, recalls Muhammad
      Ibrahim, a geologist with Target Exploration in London.
      Unfortunately we are unable to provide accessible
      alternative text for this. If you require
      assistance to access this image, or to obtain a
      text description, please contact npg@...

      Al-Hashimi, an expert in the porosity of
      dolomite, was kidnapped on 24 August 2005; his
      car was intercepted on his way to work in
      Baghdad. Ibrahim, who grew up with him and is a
      friend of the family, says they paid a ransom.
      But Al-Hasimi's daughter found his body two weeks
      later in a Baghdad hospital, shot twice in the
      head. "She went from mortuary to mortuary looking
      every day," says Ibrahim. "His eyes had been
      pulled out during torture. I didn't know human beings could go so low."

      Al-Hashimi, who published extensively on
      sedimentology and water resources in the Middle
      East, had a long academic career abroad before
      returning to Iraq in 1972 to head the mineralogy
      wing of the Geological Survey of Iraq. When he
      died, he was a consultant and member of the board
      of the Iraqi Drilling Company, and secretary
      general of the Arab Geologists Association.

      Sabah al-Jaf

      Sabah al-Jaf, a top official at the Iraqi
      education ministry, was gunned down in the
      Al-Karradah area of Baghdad on 22 May this year;
      one of his bodyguards was also killed, and a
      second seriously wounded. Koichiro Matsuura,
      director-general of the United Nations
      Educational, Social and Cultural Organization
      (UNESCO), condemned the assassination, and the
      escalating attacks on academics. "By targeting
      educators, the perpetrators of such violence are
      undermining the reconstruction of Iraq and
      jeopardizing the future of the country and of democracy."

      Al-Jaf was the third senior ministry official to
      be assassinated. Last year, he introduced a
      system to put all exam results on the Internet,
      with the idea that greater transparency would
      reduce nepotism; in the past, students with
      connections in government could expect better
      results. UNESCO had several projects with al-Jaf
      and other ministry officials. "Education is one
      of the most vital sectors for the Iraqi people,"
      says Mohamed Djelid, director of the
      organization's Iraq office in Amman, Jordan. "We
      are just trying to maintain a minimum, trying to
      keep schools and universities open and have exams held."

      D.B.
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