Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Gun Law on Campus

Evading checkpoints and metal detectors, gun-toting students make university life hazardous.
By Izzat Abd

Students breakfasting at the recreation club of Baghdad's Technical Institute recently were startled to see one of their classmates assault his fiancée, who had scolded him for going out drinking the night before.

They were even more shocked by what came next. When security guards intervened in the argument, the man pulled out a hand grenade and threatened to pull the pin unless everyone backed off.

The attacker was eventually subdued when a guard hit him over the head from behind, leaving his classmates safe but understandably upset.

"How could a student enter the university with a hand grenade?" asked Saher Razeq, a second-year student in electrical engineering, who witnessed the incident. "How carefully do they search them?"

Not very carefully, say students at several universities in Baghdad. They told IWPR that since the war, higher education institutions have been flooded with weapons – used by students in personal disputes, political quarrels, to threaten teachers, or self-defence.

The prevalence of arms creates an atmosphere of intimidation. Some students say that they are no longer willing to stay in campus dormitories, preferring a long commute to living among well-armed classmates.

Teaching staff also complain of the danger.

Ramzi Hakim, who lectures in mechanical engineering at the Technical Institute, told IWPR how he was threatened after intervening in a fight between two students, who were quarrelling about whether or not Saddam should come back to power.

When Hakim tried to pull them apart, the anti-Saddam student told him that "all the professors were former Baathists, and they support the old regime".

The student swore that any teacher who didn't give him a pass mark would be killed.

Hakim says that the student will pass his course. "If I don't pass him, I will die," he said.

Universities and colleges have guards on their gates who check for weapons as students enter the grounds. Sometimes the procedure – at the Technical Institute, a quick frisk and a once-over with a hand-held metal detector – does catch smuggled weapons.

Marwa al-Safir, studying surveying, is grateful to the guards who caught a girl carrying a hand grenade last December. She doesn't know why her classmate brought the weapon, but believes that "if the guards hadn't been alert, it would have been a disaster".

But other students find ways to get around the searches.

Hiba Abd al-Razek, also in mechanical engineering, explains the box-cutter knife she is carrying by telling guards she needs it to trim papers as part of her assignments. But in reality she says she needs it for "protection from kidnapping or rape, which happen frequently nowadays".

Hussein Akram, an accounting student at Baghdad University and a student union activist under the old regime, says he needs his pistol to protect himself against people who have threatened him since the end of the war.

"I can get my weapon through any time, because there are not many guards and they don't have much experience," he said.

Amir Abd-al Hadi, in charge of security at Baghdad University, confirms that students frequently get weapons through the gates, "Sometimes we find a student who has been able to keep a weapon under his jacket, and has been able to get it through the morning inspection".

Students find the trend particularly disturbing because of the tradition of “haram al-jamaa”, or campus sanctuary, under which weapons are banned within universities.

Ali Mustafa¸ a student in the Rusafa Institute for administrative studies, witnessed a fellow student shooting wildly into the air after a guard on the gate tried to take away his pistol. "How could a student dare to open fire in the haram al-jamaa?" he asked.

The guards say they lack proper training. IWPR attended a course for school guards offered by the municipal council of Zaafarania, west of Baghdad , that consisted of three one-hour classes – mostly in the form of lectures – on various aspects of security.

Other guards, such as the Technical Institute's Shaker Maysani, say they have to cope with such a press of students at the gates that the only solution is more staff and a walk-through metal detector.

Izzat Abd al-Razek is an IWPR trainee.