Iraq's colleges are desperate to rebuild - and British institutions have set up a forum to help them. Robert Nurden reports

Dr Abduljabbar Hamadi steeled himself and, with a quavering voice, spoke of the bombing of Basra technical college by British forces last year. "As I listened through the night, I heard section after section of my college being destroyed," he told his audience in south London.

"There was no hope, because the Iraqi army was using part of the building as a munitions dump, so it was a prime target for the allied forces," says Dr Hamadi, who is dean of the college. "We have started teaching again, but in shelled-out classrooms and with hardly any equipment."

This emotional briefing at Greenwich Community College in January proved to be the spur for an inspirational initiative by a handful of British colleges of further education. They decided to band together to help Iraq's ravaged further-education sector re-establish itself after the war. The bleak position of Basra technical college described by Dr Hamadiapplies to up to 40 colleges around the country.

A week after his speech, the British FE colleges, meeting again at Greenwich and inspired by the international department of the Association of Colleges (AOC), established the Iraq Colleges Forum, with the aim of providing practical and moral support to the Middle Eastern country.

The forum is to set up a twinning arrangement between English and Iraqi colleges of further education so that principals and managers can travel to Britain to shadow their counterparts in similar institutions for up to six weeks at a time. During their visits, the Iraqi academics will convey to their British hosts what their most important requirements are. In addition, symposiums and study tours are planned as part of the drive to strengthen Iraq's process of building capacity.

"Initially, the most important thing is to be in contact," says Geoff Pine, the principal of Greenwich Community College, which has about 150 Iraqi students. "Rather than tell Iraq what it needs, we are ready to listen. But we have already learnt that staff development, teacher training and curriculum design are priority areas."

Greenwich's strong international tradition means that it is a logical step for the college to assist Iraq's struggling FE sector. "It is something we are proud to be a part of," Pine says. "I understand that the colleges need inputs of expertise into the oil industry and engineering, but at a later date, hospitality and tourism development are areas where British FE colleges can help with as well. Books, education supplies and equipment are also of concern, and we will be seeking funding for that."

With large sums of money being required - one estimate is for initial funding of £40m - the forum is to lobby the Government through the Department for Education and Skills, the Foreign Office, UK Trade and Investment (part of the Department of Trade and Industry), and the Depart-ment for International Development. International efforts will be focused on Unesco and the World Bank, and British industry will be lobbied privately.

The forum is made up of representatives from the AOC, the British Council and nine further-education colleges - Greenwich Community College, Plymouth, South East Essex, Preston, Halton, City College Brighton and Hove, Huddersfield, Derby, and Hertford Regional. There are signs, too, that education suppliers, universities and academic publishers may come on board.

Dr Hamadi came with a shopping list and a plea for help in Basra. There is, he says, an urgent need for office accommodation for 160 teachers and administrators, and for up to 1,500 tables, chairs and desks, 200 PCs and 100 laser printers, photocopiers, fax machines, scanners, televisions, refrigerators, cookers, bookcases, a car and a student minibus.

In the longer term, there is a need for the full range of technical equipment such as laboratory, electrical, thermodynamic and welding facilities, plus lathes, power tools and rewinding motors. Textbooks are required, as are funds to build a mosque for the college. At a later date, recreational amenities such as a swimming pool, gymnasium, library and students' club will be required, plus residential blocks. According to Dr Hussain Ahmed, an Iraqi teacher at Halton College, Widnes, the situation in his country is desperate, but the war is not the only reason. "For 15 years, Saddam Hussein's regime has starved vocational education of funds," he says. "What's more, the south of the country is far worse off than the north, and Basra is one of the poorest areas. Then, after the war, came the looting, which was primarily responsible for the loss of equipment. It is generous of the colleges here to offer their help, but I also see it as Britain's duty to do something. There will, of course, be all sorts of business opportunities opening up as well."

The rebuilding of essential infrastructure is a priority, he believes, so skills such as bricklaying, electrics and carpentry are needed. With up to a million men being released from the army, there is huge potential for re-training in these skills, but there is also a severe shortage of teachers.

Ali Hadawi, the vice-principal of Greenwich Community College, is himself Iraqi. He is confident the initiative will succeed in helping his country to rebuild. "Most of the country is safe now, but it is in a mess, particularly in the south, which is a deprived area. This is a chance for the country to reject the centralisation of Baghdad and to come up with local solutions."

The forum aims to help about 40 Iraqi colleges. A feasibility study will develop a strategy for 10 selected colleges. In some cases, telephone and e-mail links will have to be set up before progress can be made.

Rafik Sfar-Gandoura of Derby College says the project will enable Iraq to "start afresh" and to implement a more relevant type of education. What is needed is people with hands-on, practical skills rather than engineers and doctors trained at higher-education level. Such initiatives will also help to address the country's catastrophic unemployment. "The feasibility study will ascertain the needs, but I anticipate that staff development and training won't be too expensive," Sfar-Gandoura says. "The real costs will come later."

The land between the Tigris and the Euphrates was once the cradle of civilisation. Under very different circumstances, and thousands of years later, perhaps British colleges can help the country to regain some of that intellectual prowess.