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

Protests Follow Student Murder

Ethnic tensions on the rise at Baghdad University after the murder of a student who organised pro-government rally.
By Safaa al-Mansoor

Many Baghdad University students, angered by the death of one of their number following a Shia event, are now calling on professors associated with the former regime to quit their jobs.


On May 8, dozens of students demonstrated in front of Dean Hamida Sumaysam’s office, and urged her to step down because of her membership of the Ba’ath party. She could not be reached for comment.


Iraq’s sectarian tensions have increased since the formerly persecuted Shia came to power following the January election, replacing the minority Sunnis who had prospered under the previous regime.


The protest occurred nearly a week after the death of Masar Sarhan, who had organised a rally on May 2 in support of the new prime minister Ibrahim al-Ja’afari, a former spokesman for the al-Da’awa Party, the oldest Shia Islamist movement.


The murdered student - two of whose brothers, both Da’awa members, were executed by the former regime - was seen as an ardent supporter of Ja’afari.


The 24-year-old pharmacy senior was found beheaded on the evening of May 2, some hours after he had allegedly argued with Mustafa al-Hiti, deputy dean of the College of Pharmacy, who had criticised some of his comments during the rally.


“Several of our professors are Ba’athist and they are not satisfied with the current situation, especially after one of the leaders of the al-Da’awa party, a fierce opponent of the former regime, became prime minister,” said Walid Amad, one of the university students who took part in the demo.


“The deputy dean al-Hiti disapproved of our rally and threatened to expel Sarhan,” claimed Amad. “He said either he or Sarhan would have to go.”


Students protesting the killing stormed al-Hiti’s office on May 3, destroying furniture and breaking windows. His guard was injured when the intruders tried to attack the deputy dean himself, who they accuse of involvement in Sarhan’s death. Iraqi police and national guard were called to quell the unrest, and a number of warning shots were fired.


Al-Hiti has been suspended from the university indefinitely and could not be reached for comment.


Baghdad University, the higher education ministry and the interior ministry have since formed committees to investigate the incident.


The university’s director of planning Mohammed Al-Atabi acknowledged there had been an argument between Sarhan and al-Hiti, but denied that this had any connection with the student’s subsequent death. He also pointed out that al-Hiti attended the funeral of the murdered man.


“I know the students accuse the deputy dean of killing their classmate but I think [the murder was committed by those] who want to instigate a quarrel between the students and the presidency of the university,” he said.


Al-Atabi believes that the students’ call for all former Ba’ath party members to leave are “unrealistic”, noting that none were heavily involved with the regime and had been excluded from the de-Ba’athification process instigated by the Coalition Provisional Authority following the invasion by the United States.


After the riot, Baghdad University president Dr Musa Jawad al-Moosawi issued a decree suspending academic work there for five days.


The higher education ministry has since issued a statement banning people from carrying weapons into universities and institutes - including the police and the national guard. The ministry also said that everyone should respect universities as centres of science, thought and culture, and urged students not to get involved in political or ethnic quarrels.


But the murder of Sarhan and the protests that followed only seems to have increased tension.


Meanwhile, Shia politician Jawad al-Maliki has vowed that the Sarhan’s killers will be brought to justice. “The students didn’t commit any wrongdoing. All that happened is that they were celebrating their government, for which they risked their lives to elect,” he said.


“We will not sit and do nothing. We will chase down the perpetrators.”


Safaa al-Mansoor is an IWPR trainee in Baghdad.