BAGHDAD, Iraq _Eighteen students were missing from Wissam Samarraie's engineering class one recent day. Furious that college seniors would skip lessons right before finals, the professor demanded to know where they were.
"Sir," one student volunteered in a soft voice, "fifteen have been detained and the other three were killed."
Samarraie was devastated, but not surprised. He teaches at Anbar University, where heading to class means passing through a gauntlet of checkpoints, dodging bullets flying between Iraqi insurgents and American troops, ignoring masked insurgents who roam the halls and sometimes arriving to find class canceled because the professor was hauled away by U.S. forces for interrogation.
"Students leave their families in the morning as if they're going to a battlefield," Samarraie said by phone.
Once lauded for its agriculture and dentistry programs, Anbar University is now known as the most dangerous place in Iraq to get a degree. The sprawling campus lies in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province and center of the Sunni Arab heartland, putting students and professors in the middle of a vicious battle between U.S. forces and extremist Sunni militants.
Fighting shut down the campus for most of last year and delayed this term's final exams. The area is so dangerous that reporters do not travel there. Students and faculty quoted in this story were interviewed by phone from Baghdad. The information was confirmed with officials from the Ministry of Higher Education in Baghdad.
About 800 students have dropped out this year; 10 percent of the 8,000 enrolled at the co-ed campus, Iraqi education officials said. The university president was kidnapped by insurgents and released—with broken ribs, smashed legs and a cracked skull—for a large ransom. The College of Agriculture is occupied by U.S. troops, who have raided campus four times in the past two weeks. One of the dormitories was blown up; two others sit empty after U.S. searches and insurgent gun battles drove students to camp out in a nearby mosque.
"It's absolutely the most troubled university of all the 21 universities in Iraq," said Abdul Rahman al Husseini, who oversees the nationwide college system for the Ministry of Higher Education. "The students and professors are not just courageous, they're heroes."
Things became particularly tough at the university after last November's U.S. offensive to drive insurgents from Fallujah. Insurgents fleeing Fallujah went to Ramadi, six miles away. Islamic extremists besieged the formerly secular campus, where male and female students used to picnic and study together. Women were harassed for wearing bright colors. Men and women caught mingling found their names posted on threatening leaflets distributed throughout the university.
"They put my name all over campus, accusing me of misbehaving just because I went to the cafeteria with a girl who's my colleague," said Marwan Shihab, a senior in the education department. "Even my friends left me because they were afraid the fighters would take me at any moment and would take anyone walking with me."
Last month, students and teachers staged a sit-in to protest the encroachment of American forces. Although many at Anbar University were genuinely angry about the military presence on campus, some professors said insurgents forced them to organize the demonstration. The result, they said, was just more U.S. raids in retaliation.
"I was going downstairs, whistling to myself, and then I saw a soldier pointing his gun at me," said Thafir Fakhri, an education professor briefly detained in a recent raid. "They took me into a bathroom and started to interrogate me. They humiliated me. ... They asked about the posters calling for a demonstration, and I told them I didn't know anything."
Abdul Hadi al Hitti, the president of Anbar University who was kidnapped by rebels, said up to 30 students remain in U.S. custody. He said several professors are also in American detention centers, including the head of the law department who was seized eight months ago.
The university received some compensation for battle damage to the campus, al Hitti added, but much-anticipated computer equipment donated by American officials sits in a locked room because the Iraqi contractor hired to wire the campus fled the country after receiving threats.
U.S. officials blame the problems on insurgents.
"People who are not involved in attacks or insurgent activities have few issues with U.S. and Iraqi Security Forces in the city of Ramadi. It's the insurgents who bring violence and disrupt daily activities, like going to school," Capt. Jeff S. Pool, a Marine spokesman in Ramadi, wrote in an e-mail.
Students and faculty members agree the insurgents mean trouble. Students have learned not to make eye contact when they see the now-familiar scene of masked gunmen carting off students in the middle of class. Last year, an engineering student blew himself up on campus, escalating concerns that fighters were recruiting students by playing on their frustration with the Americans.
"I saw gunmen in the university twice last week," said Ahmed Lafi, a biology professor. "No one can even whisper and if you address them, asking them why they're here, you're dead."
Iraqi education officials are at a loss as to how to deal with the violence. Al Husseini, of the higher education ministry, said "helpless" Iraqi educators have reached out to the prime minister and to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad with a proposal to move American troops further from campus.
Until then, he said, there's no choice but to keep the university open to students so desperate for an education that they'll risk death in hopes of a future that lifts them from Iraq's vast unemployment problem, which is blamed for fueling the insurgency.
"The only other choice we have is to totally shut down Anbar University," al Husseini said. "In that case, instead of 8,000 students, we'd have 8,000 terrorists."
(Al Dulaimy is a Knight Ridder special correspondent. Knight Ridder correspondent Tom Lasseter contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.