Death of a Scientist
Some bad news of a personal nature out of Iraq today. A scientist friend of my former fixer in Iraq was shot and killed in traffic Monday:
BAGHDAD — A leading Iraqi academic and prominent hardline Sunni political activist was fatally shot by three gunmen Monday as he was leaving his Baghdad home, police said.
The killers escaped in a car after gunning down Essam al-Rawi, head of the University Professor’s Union and a senior member of the influential Association of Muslim Scholars, according to police Lt. Maitham Abdul-Razaq.
The association is a Sunni organization believed to have links to the insurgency raging against U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies. The group has boycotted elections and stood aside from the political process.
An association official confirmed the killing of al-Rawi, a geologist, saying he was behind the wheel of his car and had just left his home for the drive to work at Baghdad University accompanied by two bodyguards.
The gunmen drove in front of al-Rawi’s car, forced it to stop, then sprayed it with automatic weapons fire, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisal. One of al-Rawi’s bodyguards was killed and the other was wounded, the official said.
I wrote about Dr. Al-Rawi in June 2004 for Seed Magazine, shortly after I got back to Iraq. I don’t remember if the story ever ran or not as there was a payment dispute, but here’s the story I wrote:
The scientists among the shell casings
BAGHDAD â€” Dr. Isam al-Rawi, a geologist at Baghdad University, sweeps his hand over a set of dog-eared journals. The arc of his gesture continues on to include a bare laboratory with a few slices of rock samples, a sagging chair and a dripping sink. The room is mean, long and narrow, with barely enough room for a colleague to squeeze past al-Rawi carrying a tray of glasses filled to their chipped rims with Sprite. Finally his hand returns to the journals and books, and he points an accusing finger at them.
“I am a university professor,” he says. “I need books!”
Indeed, he needs a lot more than that, but few things sum up the current state of Iraq’s scientific crisis more than its lack of books and journals. Al-Rawi’s most recent acquisition is a photocopied version of the 1998 edition of the Atlas of Rock Forming Minerals, which he bought in Libya on his last trip outside Iraq. His most recent journal, a copy of the Geological Society of America Bulletin, dates to August 1985. To a one, his books and journals are old, out of date and falling apart, much like the country’s scientific community itself.
Before the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq’s scientists were some of the most respected in the region and they made a good living. The country’s universities churned out engineers, technicians and Ph.D.s. They often did post-graduate work in the West and had access to the world’s scientific literature. They traveled to scientific conferences all over the world.
But things started to get bad in the mid-1980s when the Iran-Iraq war was raging; Saddam Hussein began restricting access to scientific journals. After the disastrous 1991 war and the impositions of sanctions, things took an even graver turn. Salaries plummeted. Al-Rawi’s monthly income went from about $2,000 a month before the 1991 war to about $400 a month. New scientists and professors earned about $100 a month. They could not travel; they could not subscribe to periodicals, as they were forbidden by the sanctions regime. New books were too expensive. Much needed equipment, which was often marked as “dual use,” was prevented from entering the country. The Middle East’s most advanced scientific community was effectively sealed up in a time capsule.
But now, even with most of the restrictions gone, things are still hard 15 months after Saddam Hussein was removed from power. While scientists are no longer prevented from ordering new books and journals and are allowed to leave the country, they often can’t for the simple reason that they have no money to do so. And a sinister series of killings has terrified and decimated the scientific community. In mid-June, Sabri Al-Bayati, professor of telecommunications at the college of Science and Education at Baghdad University was shot dead near his home in the Bab Al-Athamiya area in central Baghdad.â€ A few days previously, a physician, Dr. Mohammed Abdullah Faleh al-Rawi (no relation), was killed while sitting in traffic. Their deaths are just two of about 250 university professors, medical doctors and engineers who have been killed since May 1, 2003.
“No one knows why, no one knows who,” al-Rawi says, and flicked his prayer beads back and forth.
In such an environment, there is no work on new research, says Dr. Nuhad Ali, a mechanical engineer at the university. The only money being spent is to keep up the salaries of the professors, and the only new equipment are some computers paid for with the now-defunct oil-for-food program. The universities aren’t even accepting new graduate students, Ali says. All current graduate students, who used to receive a monthly stipend, were enrolled before the war.
But not all is hopeless, two solid state physicists, Dr. Izzat al-Essa and Dr. Raed al-Haddend, says they had been able to attend the Saudi Solid State Physics conference in Riyadh in March. The praised the lifting of travel restrictions, but says it was still very expensive.
Baghdad University was also lucky. Almost every other university in the country was looted in the civil unrest following the fall of Baghdad. But American troops decided to bivouac on the campuses of Baghdad University and the nearby Al-Nahrain University neé Saddam Hussein University. Their presence prevented the wholesale looting of everything down to electrical fixtures that was going on just across town at al-Mustansiriya University.
So now the scientific community must rebuild with limited financial resources in a security vacuum. It’s no wonder there’s an abiding sense of hopelessness among the professors. Al-Essa and al-Haddend dream of X-ray machines, electron microscopes and FT-IR spectrometers. Al-Rawi wants to replace his 1974 X-ray fluorescence machine so he can analyze some rock sections he recently took near Perispike in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq. Dr. Emad T. Bakir, an industrial chemist with a specialty in polymers, hopes for research assistants, catalysts and solvents.
But the money is simply not there. The former administrator for the now-dissolved Coalition Provisional Authority L. Paul Bremer III was found of saying, “Iraq is a rich country that is temporarily poor.” The new government is inheriting many of Iraq’s old debts, including $29.8 billion for war reparations to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, but the Transitional Administrative Law, which is the working constitution for the interim government, forbids deficit spending. All ministries, including the Ministry of Higher Education, headed by Dr. Taher Khalaf Jabur al-Bakaa, are feeling the vice grip of national poverty. The minister doesn’t even have a bullet-proof vest; he can’t afford one.
But if Iraqis are good at anything, it’s hoping. The scientific community is no exception. Fueling this hope is a promise promise from Bremer. Before he left June 28, he said he would attempt to increase communications between American scientists at universities and their Iraqi counterparts. An Iraqi delegation recently returned from the University of Oklahoma whose president Bremer went to school with.
“We hope our friends in America and England will come to see what has happened to us,” says al-Rawi.
It should be noted that almost all of the murders of university professors have gone unsolved. Al-Rawi was working to change that when he became a victim himself.