The best university in Iraq. Imagine the rest

From the archive (legacy material)

Luke Harding | The Guardian | 23 September 2004

Broken or antiquated equipment, and too few chairs to go round. Luke Harding in Baghdad reports on what Saddam, sanctions and ‘shock and awe’ did to science.

Standing in the physics laboratory of Baghdad University, Professor Raad Radhi points to the machine for measuring liquid helium. “It hasn’t worked for two or three years,” he says, in front of a twisting assembly of pipes. Colleagues nod vigorously. “In fact we haven’t got anything,” he adds. “We don’t even have chairs for our students to sit on.
“I got my PhD from the University of Michigan. Imagine the difference between the facilities here and there. How are we expected to work?”
It is a good question. Some 17 months after the fall of Baghdad, Iraqi science is in parlous state. Most of the equipment used by Radhi and his department, much of it British, is 20 or 30 years old. “Look at this,” the professor says, as he shows off the university’s crumbling electronics lab. “Most of this stuff doesn’t work. The few things that do work should be in a museum.”
“We might be able to make coffee on this,” he adds sarcastically, gesturing at a plate for soldering metal.
It is hardly surprising the professor and other scientists at Iraq’s premier academic institution are demoralised. Over the past 20 years the country’s scientific community has, as the science dean, Abdul Mehdi Talib, explains, been much reduced. During last year’s invasion of Iraq, looters descended on the leafy campus, an enclave of date palms and saysaban trees in central Baghdad. They carried off everything they could – microscopes, oscilloscopes, air-conditioning units – stripping many of the university’s five science colleges. “They took the lot. When I came back to my office I found only the walls,” Dr Talib recalls. “We managed to buy some of our equipment back from people selling it on the street. But a lot of it was smuggled up to the north and disappeared.”
Even before last year’s war, Iraq’s once vibrant scientific community had fallen on hard times. It had, for more than a decade, been cut off from the rest of the world. After Saddam appointed himself president in 1979, Iraqi scientists – many of whom had studied in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s – found it hard to travel abroad. Then in 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait.
After the first Gulf war, the UN imposed sanctions, cutting off Iraqi scientists’ few remaining contacts with the west. They were no longer able to travel to international conferences or collaborate with colleagues abroad; foreign governments rejected their visa applications. Publication in foreign journals ceased. They were forbidden from buying scientific literature and new equipment.
The priority now, Talib says, is for Iraqi scientists to re-establish a diverse range of contacts with the international scientific community. “We are poor experimentally. Most of our research relies on simulation. And we need a lot of things.”
In some respects, Baghdad University is like any other academic community – male and female students sit together in the sunny garden cafe, drinking tea under white umbrellas. In other ways, it is different: guards with Kalashnikovs are posted at all the entrances; every car that enters is searched for bombs. A radical Islamist group recently demanded that men and women in Iraqi higher education should be taught separately. So far, though, the ubiquitous suicide bombers have not tried to blow up the campus.
Since last year’s invasion, the university has published several research projects, including studies on the etching of polymer-metal composites by laser ablation; on generation and decay of laser driven shock waves; and a spectroscopic study of the dye DCM as an active medium for luminescent solar concentrators, that focus sunlight.
“We hope that we can bring our PhD students to the same standard as the US or Britain,” the professor says. “They are the future of this country.” What, then, was his message to the wider scientific world? “We are your brothers. We graduated from your universities. Now we need your help.”
So far, though, he and his colleagues have been disappointed by the response from the British government; there has scarcely been one. The dean is keen to send his best PhD students and faculty staff abroad; so far, Britain has offered just 50 scholarships for the whole of Iraq.
Hatim Attiya, the university’s scien tific affairs president, visited Birmingham University earlier this year, but laments that such opportunities for training are few. With Iraq under American and British occupation, the university hoped that its facilities, many of them damaged or destroyed, might be rebuilt. “They promised to rebuild Iraq. But it hasn’t happened here,” Radhi says, as his colleagues frantically scribble lists of urgently needed equipment and hand them to the Guardian: lasers, wavelength division multiplexes, vacuum ovens. “I can only conclude that they lied,” he says. “We are the best university in Iraq. Imagine what the others are like,” he adds.
The university is on the brink of signing a memorandum of understanding with Sussex University, which has offered to donate instruments, including a second-hand spectrophotometer, and a stock of chemi cals. So far, though, nobody has figured out a way of shipping them to Iraq.
One of the biggest problems that Iraqi scientists face is that they have become famous internationally for the wrong reasons. Talib, who completed his physics PhD at Manchester University in the early 1970s, says it is important to distinguish between scientists who had worked in academic institutions under the old regime and those who worked for Saddam’s government. “We want to rejoin the world community,” he said. “They shouldn’t consider us as devils. We are academics. We don’t like politics.” Immediately after the fall of Baghdad, elections were held at the university for a new president, vice-presidents and deans. The old tier of the administration that had been appointed by Saddam was removed; everybody else went back to work.
At the same time, the US military ar rested dozens of Iraqi scientists who had been part of Saddam’s vast military-industrial complex. The US’s aim was to discover Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction; some 17 months later it has now become embarrassingly clear, even to Tony Blair, that these weapons don’t exist. Despite this, the Bush administration continues to hold a small number of Iraqi scientists – including two women, Rihab Taha, nicknamed Dr Germ, said to have been in charge of Iraq’s biological weapons programme in the 1980s, and Huda Ammash, dubbed Mrs Anthrax by US intelligence – at a high-security camp at Baghdad’s international airport. None of the scientists has been charged with any crime; the US authorities have refused them legal access.
In January this year, Mohammed Munim Al-Izmerly, a distinguished chemistry professor, mysteriously died while in American custody. An Iraqi autopsy found he had been hit over the head with a blunt instrument.
Eight months on, the White House has still not offered an explanation. Other scientists still being held without charge include Amer Al Saadi, Saddam’s chief scientific adviser who studied at Battersea College of Technology- now part of Surrey University- in the 1960s. In February 2003, Dr Saadi appeared on TV to rubbish the US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. In April 2003, three days after Baghdad fell, Saadi gave himself up to the Americans; they have kept him in jail ever since. Saadi’s German wife, Helma, says her husband’s only crime was to have mocked Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, in a press conference before the invasion. “Under the Geneva convention, prisoners of war should be either charged or released once a conflict is over,” she says at her home in Baghdad. “My husband is in a black hole of illegality. He was the only one who told the truth. Because of this the Americans have kept him in prison for one and a half years.”
But it would be wrong to suggest that, despite the overwhelming obstacles, Iraqi scientists have given up. Some 71,000 students currently attend Baghdad University – half of them in science departments – together with 6,000 postgraduates; the university’s teaching staff includes 4,000 lecturers and about 1,000 professors. Facilities are sufficient for undergraduate work; the problem, Talib admits, is that at postgraduate level they are woefully inadequate. There are also no jobs for bright PhD students who want to remain in academia. The university doesn’t have any money: 90% of its meagre budget goes on staff salaries, which now average $450 a month.
“Even if we had the cash, we can’t buy anything because Iraq doesn’t have an international banking system,” Talib says. “We urgently need a laser lab for our medical students who are investigating cancer problems. But we are not allowed to import lasers.” It would, one would have thought, be a good investment: spend half a million pounds on bringing young Iraqi scientists to Britain for doctoral and postdoctoral courses; and revive Britain’s once-fruitful scientific relationship with Iraq.
Under the old regime, much of Iraq’s intelligentsia fled, to neighbouring countries in the Middle East, and to Europe and America. Unless western governments move swiftly, a new exodus will begin. And Professor Radhi’s conked-out liquid helium machine will never get repaired.
How can you help? Scientists at Baghdad University have compiled a list of desperately needed laboratory equipment.
Science and Civilization in Islam by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islamic Texts Society. ISBN 1903682401
Science in Ancient Mesopotamia by Carol Moss, 1999, Franklin Watts. ISBN 0531159302
Campaign to preserve Iraq’s heritage