BAGHDAD, Iraq—An odd thing has happened at Baghdad's universities: the professors have begun hiding their education by donning ratty clothes, pulling on traditional Arab head scarves and driving to campus in beat-up cars.
It's all part of an effort to keep from getting fired.
With the threat of violence emptying university campuses, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki took the rare step earlier this month of ordering students and professors back to class. Anyone who doesn't obey could face dismissal or expulsion.
Maliki's aides defend the order, saying that education is the lifeblood of Iraq and its collapse would threaten the government and the nation.
But those forced to obey the order complain that they're risking their lives as unwilling pawns of a government that can't guarantee their security.
"I heard about the prime minister's order, and it is ignorant about what is happening in Iraq. The government doesn't know what life is like, not only for professors and students, but for all people," said Khamis al Badri, a political science professor at al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad.
Iraq's universities have been a target for insurgents and militias alike almost since the war began in 2003. Professors tell of armed gangs taking over buildings and classrooms and even issuing threats about grades. Thousands of students have requested transfers to campuses where their sects—Sunni Muslim or Shiite Muslim—are in the majority. Thousands of professors and students, seeking to avoid violence and threats, have fled the nation to pursue their studies in neighboring countries.
Around Baghdad, many campuses are desolate. Many families refuse to let their children, particularly women, finish their education for fear of what will happen either en route to class or once they get there.
According to the Iraq Students and Youth League, a university advocacy group, at least 10 violent incidents racked Baghdad's two main universities in the first week of this month, when Maliki issued his order. Among them were attempted kidnappings in front of Iraqi police officers, who didn't try to stop the attacks.
At Baghdad University, only 6 percent of student and professors attended in early December, the group found. The highest attendance level was 59 percent at private universities.
Ali Adeeb, a top Maliki adviser, said he recommended to the prime minister that he issue the order after a Sunni insurgent group, Ansar al Sunna, posted fliers around campuses threatening to kill students and professors for coming to campus.
"We have to confront this psychological war," Adeeb said. "I know if the studies stop, the country will really be chaotic."
Badri, the professor, said it wasn't fair to expect academics to defy violence when no one else in Iraq was forced to. He pointed out that the nation's 275-member parliament often can't meet because too many members don't attend, sometimes because the roads leading to the heavily fortified Green Zone are too dangerous.
Even the Sunni minister of higher education's office complains that there isn't enough security at the campuses.
"We have asked the government to provide us with security, and they did that to certain degree. What is happening in the street is out of our control," ministry spokesman Basel al Khatib said.
Iraq's universities were among the Middle East's premier institutions, but their state now reflects the nation's turmoil. Rogue groups target professors and students for kidnapping and murder, either for money or because some perceive their educational pursuit as un-Islamic. Universities in the restive Anbar and Diyala provinces have shut down briefly or delayed resuming the school year several times in the last two years. Diyala University is scheduled to reopen this week, in part because of Maliki's order.
Al Mustansiriya University, which sits near the impoverished Sadr City neighborhood, is one of Iraq's liveliest campuses. Walls and walkways are covered with photos of rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, interspersed with fliers warning students that they'll fail if they don't show up for class. Hanging above that are pictures of young men who've been killed.
Only one police truck sits in front of the main entrance.
Left to their own devices for protection, many look to the university, not the government. At some campuses, university officials have suggested that those with obviously sectarian names change them to avoid being picked up at illegal checkpoints, where Shiite or Sunni partisans search for members of the rival sect.
Armo Heshan, an economics lecturer at al Mustansiriya and a Sunni, said he began to dress down in an effort to disguise his standing as a teacher. He said he didn't need an order to get back to work.
After the Persian Gulf War in 1991, he recalled, "the universities stopped for six months. It was like life itself stopped. But when schools and colleges opened back again, everything started up again. Life went back to normal. That is why I am here now."
Nawar Jaleel, a Shiite professor who was sitting next to Heshan, said he kept coming because he wasn't any safer at his nearby home.
"Education and knowledge are the most important elements of life," he said. "If they go, there is no life left."
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Zaineb Obeid in Baghdad contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.