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Iraq's universities are in meltdown

As Iraq descends into chaos its scholars are calling on Tony Blair for help

Universities in Iraq are in meltdown. On 30 October 2006, Professor al-Rawi, head of the University Professors' Union, was shot outside his home, the victim of unknown gunmen. He was trying to highlight the dangers on Iraq's campuses - and he was not alone in his fate.

A few weeks later a Baghdad University dean, Jassim as-Asadi, was returning home with his wife and son when gunmen drove alongside and sprayed his car with automatic weapons. All three were killed.

Since the war began in 2003, hundreds of Iraqi academics have been kidnapped or murdered - and thousands more have fled for their lives, many ending up in Britain. So far more than 470 academics have been killed. Buildings have been burnt and looted in what appears to be a random spree of violence aimed at Iraqi academia, a conference organised by the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (Cara) at University College London was told last week. No one knows who is responsible for the mayhem.

The sense is that Iraq's leading scholars are being systematically liquidated or hounded out of the country in an orgy of mindless terrorism by local militia and other factions. Planned acts of assassination against academics are taking place daily. The kidnapping of staff at the Scientific Ministry in Baghdad is one illustration of this. It is thought to be no coincidence that afterwards the Iraqi government closed all universities. "What we are seeing today in Iraq is a cynical and ruthless strategy of destabilisation," said Dr John Withrington of Exeter University, chairman of the British Universities Iraq Consortium. "The strategy is to intimidate, to introduce anarchy instead or order, despair instead of hope."

This a tragedy for the individuals affected and their families, and it is a serious threat to the intellectual foundations of modern Iraq, putting the recovery of that country at risk.

Because of the urgency of the situation, Cara has decided to take immediate action to help Iraqis. Set up in the 1930s by William Beveridge when he was director of the LSE with the help of eminent scholars such as Maynard Keynes and Lord Rutherford, it sought to help the Jewish intelligentsia being persecuted in Germany.

"Now we have a crisis that is comparable in magnitude to the 1930s," said John Ashworth, president of Cara and a former director of the LSE. "In the 1930s Jews were not only being encouraged to emigrate but were also being murdered. We intend to support Iraqi academics wherever they may be."

To this end Cara has decided to change one of its rules. Until now it has only ever agreed to help people who have won formal refugee status in the UK. From now on it will help Iraqis who aren't officially classed as refugees. And it is immediately allocating £100,000 for this purpose.

Last week, the organisation wrote to Tony Blair asking him for both moral and financial support for Iraqi academics. Professor Ashworth called on all universities in the UK and all student unions to "adopt" an Iraqi - to give an Iraqi academic work or give a student a place at a British university.

When Professor Ashworth was a student in the 1950s at Exeter College, Oxford, he and other students adopted a Hungarian refugee, George Radda, who came to Britain to study law and quickly switched to chemistry. That charitable act had important repercussions for Radda, who subsequently became Sir George Radda, after a long and distinguished career in the UK, ending up as secretary of the Medical Research Council and a fellow of the Royal Society.

"If every student union and university decided to adopt an Iraqi in the same way, hundreds of Iraqis would survive, hopefully to restart their academic lives when the security situation improves," said Professor Ashworth. "I think we owe a moral obligation to Iraqis, many of whom are graduates of British universities."

A Jewish refuge, Lewis Elton, professor of higher education at UCL, and father of the comedian Ben Elton, told the story of how he left Prague in 1939 with his brother Geoffrey, later to become the noted historian and Tudor expert. "We arrived on St Valentine's Day and we have had a love affair with England ever since," he said. "My brother and I obtained degrees from London University, we became academics; none of that would have been possible without the help we received. I went back to Prague after the war and saw our synagogue with the names of those Jews who perished, including my favourite teacher and my best friend. I owe my life to this society and I will be grateful to it for the whole of my life."

Iraqi academics flocked to UCL last week in an emotional display of support for their country's education system. One academic from a technology institute in Baghdad said that he had witnessed the day of the invasion, 9 April 2003. "Everything was intact on that day," he said. "Two days later everything had been destroyed. All universities were looted one day after the invasion."

There were pleas for special treatment for Iraqi students coming to Britain. Dr Abdullah Al Musawi, a former chancellor of the University of Iraq, now with the Iraqi Embassy in London, called on UK universities to reduce overseas student fees for Iraqis. These range from £3,500 to £18,000 a year and are prohibitively expensive for most Iraqis. "Will you please ask universities to give us special fees?" he pleaded. Another speaker suggested British universities could offer special scholarships to Iraqi students rather than fee-waivers on the grounds that this might be more politically acceptable.

Cara's sister organisation in the US, the Scholar Rescue Fund, has already begun to mobilise support for a programme to save the lives of Iraqi academics and to ensure they are able to go back to rebuild the country's education system. Their plan is to support 200 Iraqi scholars to teach Iraqi students from outside the country, in, for example, the Middle East.

The hope is that the British government will support a similar scheme in the United Kingdom to help Iraqi scholars in the UK and in the Middle East. The plight of the Iraqi academics who have arrived as refugees in Britain was starkly illustrated by a speaker who said he had been an assistant professor at the University of Baghdad engineering college. "I have lived in the UK for four years and have applied for hundreds of jobs and am now an unpaid researcher at King's College London for one year," he said.

There are no easy solutions, said John Akker, Cara's executive secretary. There are hundreds of Iraqi academics in Syria and Jordan who are short of money. "There is an urgent need to help the Iraqi academics in London. Many need funds or have practical difficulties with living."

Iraqi universities and academics have a proud history and are a threat to those now competing for power. Is that why they are being targeted?