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Conflict in Basra Spreads to Campus

Students linked to rival Shia parties and militias are throwing their weight around at the University of Basra.
By Dhiya Mousa
Students with links to the political and religious parties vying for control of the southern city of Basra are intimidating both lecturers and classmates at university.

“Either you let me pass this class, or you will be in danger," is typical of the threats received by lecturers at the University of Basra from students attempting to use their political – and paramilitary – connections to get better grades.

Students at the university, which has 17 colleges with 34,000 students and 2,000 lecturers and assistants, complain that politicised classmates are harassing them and telling them what to wear and how to behave.

Some lecturers say that this threatening behaviour, which causes conflict and feuds on campus, shows how the local political parties are trying to exert control and disrupt university life through their student supporters.

Conditions in the universities are already difficult. Ongoing security problems cause classes to be suspended for days at a time, and there is a severe shortage of teaching materials. At many colleges, the curriculum has not been changed since the Seventies or Eighties.

Some lecturers have already fled the city to escape the threat to their lives posed by a campaign to kill university professors, lecturers and intellectuals throughout Iraq, which began in 2004.

No one knows who is orchestrating this campaign, the latest victim of which was Mohammed Aziz, a professor at the College of Fine Arts in Basra, who was killed in May.

A source at Basra university, who spoke anonymously for fear of assassination, said a total of 362 lecturers have been killed in Baghdad, Basra, Mosul and Najaf since the campaign began.

Local security and education officials refused to provide information about the number of lecturers who have left or have been killed in Basra. According to figures from the Iraqi ministry of higher education, 4,500 lecturers have left the country since March 2003.

Inside the University of Basra, posters supporting religious and political celebrities are plastered on walls — graphic evidence of the way politics has infiltrated campus life, a development that many students dislike.

Basra province has become a battlefield for Shia parties, militias and clerics jostling for control of the city’s rich oil reserves as well as its Gulf seaport, through which oil is exported and vital goods are imported. The Supreme Islamic Council, the Dawa Party, and the Mahdi Army of hardliner Muqtada al-Sadr compete to control the provincial council, which is currently led by the Fadhila Party.

One of the first signs that religious militias would try to impose restrictions on students’ daily lives came in March 2005, when Shia paramilitaries aligned with al-Sadr attacked a group of engineering students having a picnic at al-Andalus Park in downtown Basra. Armed with rubber cables and sticks, the militias beat the students and took some of them away in pickup trucks. The attack reportedly left one Christian girl dead.

The students had offended the militiamen because the men were dancing and singing, and mixing with female students.

In protests sparked by the attacks, students called for an end to political interference in university affairs.

"The incident [rang] alarm bells about the worsening situation at the universities because of intervention by members of religious parties," said Muhannad al-Mansoori, a student at Basra University.

Students say little has changed since then.

Rasha al-Bahadli, 23, who is studying agriculture, said his peers continue to be harassed by classmates affiliated with Islamic parties. "They ask us to change the ringtones of our mobile phones, our clothes or our hair styles, all allegedly in the name of religion,” he said.

Lecturers also come under pressure from political groups, often to help failing students pass their exams.

Last June, a student with links to an Islamic party attacked a lecturer at the College of Education because he refused to mark up his grades so he could pass the class.

A witness said that lecturers and students watched the fight but no one dared intervene, and the attacks only subsided when the professor got a his pistol out of his car and fired warning shots into the air to scare off his attacker and disperse the crowd.

Hakim al-Mayyahi, head of the security committee at Basra’s provincial council, accused neighbouring states of being behind the attacks on university teaching staff. He refused to say which country he had in mind, but said “some of them are acting according to a very dangerous plan".

Many lecturers are more worried about political actors closer to home. They complain that the local security forces have been infiltrated by political parties, and say this makes them hesitant to report threats and abuse.

Mayyahi confirmed there was “wrongdoing” within the security services, but insisted, “this does not mean there is no trust”.

He said that many of the problems had already been solved and that the provincial council had asked both the security forces and political parties not to intrude on the university campus.

Any incidents that had been reported were “individual acts by certain party members", he said, rather than part of some wider campaign.

But Abu Mohammed al-Ibrahimi, who lectures at Basra University, disagrees.

“Extremist Islamic parties in Basra control everything,” he said. “They impose their agenda on people through their militias who threaten and kill people.”

Dhiya Mousa is an IWPR contributor in southern Iraq.

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