Global Policy Forum

Academia's Killing Fields


By Felicity Arbuthnot*

Islam Online
February 28, 2006

Iraq, the land of ancient Mesopotamia, also known as the "cradle of civilization" to archeologists, gifted the world many of academia's "pillars of wisdom." Many who even came before Europe had built its first cathedral, or the Romans the Coliseum.

The first written records, domestic laws, astronomy, mathematics, pharmacology, and the wheel are believed to have been developed at Ur, the earliest civil society in the world. It is also believed to be the site of the Garden of Eden.

In between numerous invasions in the turbulent region, knowledge has been lost or destroyed, only to reemerge triumphant with an advanced enhanced civilization. Learning has long been central in Iraq. The first question by a prospective bride's parents, if they are educated, that is always asked is, "What did he study? What level is his degree?" said Sana al Khayyat, the author of Honour and Shame: Women in Modern Iraq.

A modern repeat of history's losses was the 13-year-long US- and UK-driven UN embargo (1990-2003), which forced many academics to leave, seeking positions in countries that had harder currency so they could send back money to sustain both their extended and immediate families. Inflation had become, almost overnight, stratospheric and staples for many were virtually unaffordable.

One Sorbonne-educated Iraqi friend said early in the embargo that the often daily US and UK bombings of vital installations, which resulted in the accompanying brain drain, indicate a long-term plan: to create chaos, to invade Iraq, to grab the oil, and to establish a permanent hold on the strategic location of the country. It seemed like a conspiracy theory.

A prominent Iraqi academic told this writer on condition of anonymity, "Iraq is suffering from a huge brain drain that will not be compensated in 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."

In 1994, the government organized a conference, which became a yearly event for expatriate academics, professionals, and intellectuals. It declared an amnesty without any reprisals for those who had left the country illegally. The aim was to encourage academics to return to a land staggering under the weight of sanctions, a land that was in need of their brains to address myriad challenges. The amnesty seemed to hold, and some academics, exchanged their well-paid positions overseas, including in the US, for the rigors of embargoed Iraq. Nationalism won over comfortable living.

However, if the embargo's brain drain was a weighty challenge, the brain death of intelligentsia at the hands of the occupying forces and others is chilling, with the entire spectrum of Iraq's professionals being dragged from their homes, offices, and consulting rooms. They are tortured, shot, ambushed — or they simply disappear only to be found horrendously liquidated; dumped outside a morgue, a hospital; slumped over their car's steering wheel; or on the street.

Anecdotal reports have made estimates of the numbers of deaths and disappearances of academics to be from around 250 to over 500 — as reported by the Palestine Information Center. Due to fear, consistent killing, kidnapping, and arrests of journalists and other investigators on the ground — often by US troops — and collapsed or impossibly expensive communications, the verification of deaths is a slow and painstaking process.

The Brussels Tribunal, however, through its determined and ongoing research, is piecing together facts and has verified names and circumstances to date of 131 cases. The names of 31 professors and 100 doctors, surgeons, medical specialists, and PhD holders in every imaginable discipline stare from the pages of the report. That the list is incomplete seems incontrovertible, with credible reports citing over 80 academics killed from Baghdad University alone.

"Over 200 prominent Iraqi academics have been assassinated within the last three years alone. Those who are not assassinated are abducted or forced out of the country," the Iraqi academic said. Scrutiny gives rise to conjecture that specific disciplines are being targeted. In the demented world of Bush and Blair's new Iraq, the murder of Dr. Mohammed Tuki Hussein Al-Talakani, a nuclear physicist, shot dead in Baghdad just before Christmas 2004, shocked and appalled.

But actions generated resulting from a US Administration that kidnaps an entire sovereign government and finds it "not productive" to count Iraq's dead, shamefully, hardly surprises. To the paranoid in Washington and their varying imported or collaborative death squads, perhaps nuclear knowledge — never mind there was no nuclear program for years — warrants a death sentence.

But what threat could Dr. Eman Younis, a lecturer in translation at the College of Arts; Dr. Jammour Khammas, a lecturer in art at Basra College of Art; and Dr. Mohammed Washed, a lecturer in Tourism have posed? Or Professor Dr. Wajeeh Mahjoub, a lecturer in physical education and author of eight books on the same subject and Dr. Sabri Al-Bayati, a professor of geography and faculty member of the College of Art, Baghdad University? Professor Laila Al-Saad, a dean at Mosul University College of Law, and her husband Muneer Al-Khiero, a professor of law at the same university, lived together, worked together, and were killed together.

Doctors and surgeons whose lives were devoted to healing were killed, their epitaphs written in the Tribunal's records. Two early murders were fellows of Britain's Royal College of Surgeons and distinguished board members of the Arab and Iraqi Boards of Medicine: Professor Dr. Emad Sarsaan and Professor Dr. Mohammed Al-Rawi, who was also chairman of the Iraqi Union of Physicians.

Experts in pediatrics, oncology, ophthalmology, pharmacology, dentistry, cardiology, and neurology; hospital directors; and administrators — all dead; they had fled from death threats and were kidnapped.

The Independent's veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk, who is 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."

Since dead men and women do not talk, morgues are overwhelmed, and forensic scientists are barely available in the circumstances, numbers of murders in Iraq since "liberation" — even sparse speculations of the numbers — are redundant. The only thing that is certain is that under the occupation's watch, a massive cull of Iraq's great academics has taken place.

That the occupying forces themselves have been responsible for many incidents is well documented. In chilling detail, journalist Saba Ali writes of two doctors who survived in Haditha, but who might well have died at the hands of US troops. In May, 2005, Dr. Walid Al-Obeide, a hospital director and surgeon, and Dr. Jamil Abbar were held for a week by soldiers in their own storeroom, and later in a pharmacy.

They were beaten so badly that between them they had a broken nose, a gashed head, and suffered from being beaten on their backs, legs, and even eyes. At one point Dr. Jamil was lying on the floor when a soldier came in, kicked him in the head, and then left, he said. Ali recorded the injuries and swellings shortly afterwards.

Haditha Hospital ambulance driver Mahmood Chima was shot by troops while trying to attend to injured families. Grenades were then thrown at his ambulance which was "ripped apart," records Ali. Haditha's horrors are documented by brave individuals, from Fallujah to northern Tel Afar, through the Euphrates valley, from town to town, village to village, border to border, and all throughout Iraq.

Professor Munim Al-Izmerly, a distinguished chemist, is recorded as having died under US interrogation. He was found to have been hit by what appeared to be a pistol shot, or bar from behind, suffering "brain stem compression." In the morgue he was found to also have a twenty centimeter incision bored into his skull.

Also recorded in detail are allegations of soldiers routinely taking over hospitals, pulling patients from their beds and IV drips, beating them, and, in one detailed case, allegedly beating surgeons in the middle of an operation. One surgeon is quoted as saying, "Patients were dying, while soldiers were beating us up."

Four more names were added to the Brussels Tribunal list in just the time it has taken to write this. They include the eminent Shiite political analyst, Dr. Ali Al-Naas, who was a frequent contributor to Arab television and an outspoken critic of the US occupation. He was shot dead in Baghdad in the early hours of January 27, 2006. There are, of course, "no leads to his assassination."

The Tribunal is urging student groups, medical organizations, hospitals, universities, and academic bodies to support their Iraqi colleagues. Their completed documentation and petition (details below) will be presented to the relevant authorities, including the UN Commission for Human Rights, demanding an independent international investigation.

About the Author: Felicity Arbuthnot is a journalist and activist who has visited Iraq on numerous occasions since the 1991Gulf War. She has written and broadcast widely on Iraq, her coverage of which was nominated for several awards. She was also Senior Researcher for John Pilger's award-winning documentary Paying the Price – Killing the Children of Iraq.

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