Faculty given a voice at Baghdad University

In its first day of operation since war ended, Baghdad University allowed professors to elect a nominee for acting president Saturday. It was the first time since the university was organized in the mid-1950s that the faculty had a voice in running it.

And for the first time in the 35 years since Saddam Hussein came to power, people on campus could safely put up anti-Saddam posters and display pictures of alumni thought to have been executed under his dictatorship.

A form of democracy and freedom of expression have finally come to Iraq’s flagship university, although, ironically, favorable images of Saddam on campus are now forbidden by U.S. authorities.

Statistics Professor Hilal Al-Bayyati, imprisoned for more than three years by Saddam’s regime, welcomed the new freedom. “There will be a completely different life,” he said.

U.S. military police armed with M-16s and grenade launchers guarded the stifling hot auditorium where more than 500 faculty members voted by secret ballot, electing Sami Al-Mudhaffar, a 63-year-old biochemistry professor who said he has not been a member of any political party since 1970. He pledged that he would show no favoritism.

The U.S.-led Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance monitored the voting. Before Al-Mudhaffar can take office, he must be approved by ORHA, which will make sure that he did not have close ties to Saddam’s Baath Party.

The last university president reportedly was Saddam’s personal physician.

Drew Erdmann, ORHA’s senior consultant to the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, said that the approval of Al-Mudhaffar could come in a few days.

In its drive to de-Baathify Iraq, ORHA will screen about 25 of Baghdad University’s top management, including the president, vice presidents and deans, Erdmann said. Anyone who had prominent Baath roles could be fired or subjected to criminal investigation.

De-Baathification also has led the university to suspend a class that included Baath indoctrination, Erdmann said.

ORHA has prohibited images of Saddam in public or governmental places. Any such displays would be removed from Baghdad University, Erdmann said. Although universities are supposed to allow free expression, any pro-Saddam symbols would only intimidate people, he said. “People are still afraid.”

The only symbols visible on campus were against Saddam. One poster said in Arabic that Baathists and Saddam supporters were not welcome. A banner showed 36 faces of men and women who reportedly were executed over the years by his regime.

It was not a normal resumption of classes. Israa Mohammad, a 21-year-old civil engineering student, said she and other students spent part of the day in their department sweeping broken window glass reportedly caused by U.S. bombing. She said she was “so happy” to return to school. “We want to finish the year.”

ORHA estimates that hundreds of thousands of Iraqi college students were enrolled before the war. There had been discussion of scrapping the whole school year, but Erdmann said that would have created a “missing class” of students who would have fallen behind or dropped out entirely.

Even so, post-war looting created severe problems for universities. Many buildings remain little more than charred shells. Books, desks, chairs, computers, lab supplies and other key materials are gone.

“Severe damage would be an understatement,” Erdmann said.

Erdmann said he expects one-third of the students to defer for a year. Many are commuters who will find it difficult, if not impossible, to get back to their colleges. Gasoline prices have shot up, and gas lines stretch for blocks.

The biggest problem, especially in Baghdad, is the ongoing concern about crime. Last week, a professor was shot and killed outside the gates of Al-Mustansrya University in broad daylight.

“They are protecting the banks, they are protecting the oil. How come they don’t protect the universities,” asked Saad Shukr, dean of the Al-Mustansrya College of Science, as two American tanks rumbled by the university gates and sped off into the distance. “This is not security.”

Erdmann said ORHA is doing its best to get crime under control. The military has placed soldiers and tanks at Baghdad University.

It was not clear how many of the university’s 44,000 students had returned Saturday. But Erdmann said he was encouraged by the turnout he saw.