Education: Universities in Iraq and the U.S.

98 Iraq has a history rich in contributions to various academic fields, and its universities were the envy of the Middle East thirty years ago. In the early years of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the education system in Iraq was well resourced, globally connected, secular and open to women.  University education was free and literacy levels rose from 52 percent in 1977 to 80 percent in 1987.  The near collapse of Iraq’s education system was the culmination of a process of decline that gathered pace with the international sanctions regime of the 1990s, culminating in the war of 2003 and its aftermath.  Iraqi universities were stripped clean not only of cultural artifacts like books but also of the basic infrastructural items that enabled them to function at all. Due to international sanctions following the 1991 Gulf War, foreign bureaucrats blocked requests for education materials and resources. After the U.S. invaded Iraq, museums and university libraries were looted and many of their cultural artifacts and documents destroyed, despite earlier pleas from the Pentagon’s Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance to protect cultural heritage sites in Iraq. Jerry Bremer’s DeBaathification process, initiated in 2003, led to the removal of half the intellectual leadership in academia regardless of whether or not they truly believed in the Baath party.

Many professors were kidnapped and assassinated during the violence that followed the US invasion.   While the exact number of academics killed is difficult to determine, estimates by journalists range between 160 and 380 by 2006.  Female students have meanwhile become targets of threats and intimidation by fundamentalist militia groups. In just three decades, Iraq’s universities, reputedly the best in the Islamic world, were effectively destroyed. 

In 2004, John Agresto, the US Senior Advisor to the Ministry of Education, assessed the rebuilding needs of devastated Iraqi universities.  He requested from Congress $1.2 billion even though the UN and World Bank had estimated it would take almost $2 billion to “ensure minimal quality standards of teaching and learning.” Nonetheless, Agresto received  $8 million, less than 1 percent of what he had asked for.

Far from the battlefield, American universities have paid a less visible price during the post-9/11 wars. The university system places greater emphasis on military research than it did prior to 9/11 and, as a result, diverts students from careers and researchers from other pressing projects they might pursue. Instead of tackling considerable public health problems such as diabetes and heart disease that kill large numbers of Americans, resources have been skewed towards a preoccupation with bioterrorism (which has killed five Americans since 9/11).

The war in Iraq harmed the Iraqi and American systems in different ways, resulting in the complete degradation of the Iraqi education system and a reallocation of research labor away from important health and other social problems in the United States.