Iraq's ramshackle institutions inched closer to collapse last week when militiamen raided the Ministry of Higher Education and kidnapped as many as 140 people who happened to be inside. The Sunni Arab Higher Education minister threatened to close his own ministry, as well as the country's universities, if the hostages were not released.
In the United States, the incident immediately became fodder for those who think the answer to the chaos in Iraq is more American boots on the ground. When Gen. John Abizaid testified before the Senate on Wednesday that the current U.S. troop level is adequate, Sen. John McCain referred to the mass abduction as evidence that more troops are needed.
But within Iraq, the incident is yet more evidence of the pressures on the country's secular elite and professional class, and the disintegration of the institutions they used to run. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees recently estimated that as many as 3,000 Iraqis, largely Sunnis and Christians, emigrate to Jordan and Syria every day to escape the killings and kidnappings. Those who can most easily afford to leave are middle-class workers and professionals, and medical care and education are suffering as a result. Louise Roug of the Los Angeles Times reported last week that the Iraqi health system is collapsing, with a lack of physicians among the major problems. Without its professional class, Iraq has little hope of long-term recovery.
The motives for the attacks vary with the attackers. Sunni Arabs dominate higher education and medicine. When Shiites kill or kidnap doctors and teachers, they are often executing individuals because of their past affiliation with Saddam Hussein's Baath regime (it was hard to get a job in medicine or education without that affiliation). Sometimes they are merely executing Sunnis for being Sunni. When Sunni Arabs target hospitals and schools, they are more likely to be trying to degrade the institutions themselves, or education and healthcare in general, as a way of trying to hasten social breakdown.
During the incident in question, the kidnappers wore the uniforms of the special police commandos of the Interior Ministry. The Iraqi Arabic-language press reported that some of the captives were held in a school near Sadda, a district of the vast Shiite slum called Sadr City in east Baghdad, and many of the first hostages to be released were Shiites. Seasoned observers have therefore concluded that the operation was carried out by members of the Mahdi Army loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and that these militia members actually do work for the Interior Ministry police force's "Volcano Brigade." (The Mahdi Army's chief rivals, the Badr militia, have also infiltrated the Volcano Brigade, but the fact that the hostages were taken to Sadr City points to the Mahdi Army.)
Why did Shiite commandos pick the Ministry of Higher Education as their target? Ministries in Iraq are sources of patronage and operate on a spoils system. The party that controls them typically gives out bureaucratic jobs to supporters. The Ministry of Higher Education is headed by Abed Dhiyab al-Ujaili, a member of the Sunni fundamentalist Iraqi Accord Front. Shiite militants would therefore consider the ministry to be a Sunni Arab stronghold. The raid likely came in revenge for the kidnappings of Shiites in recent weeks by guerrilla groups that Shiites believe are linked to the Sunni Arab political parties.
Higher Education Minister al-Ujaili submitted a conditional resignation late on Wednesday and insisted that 140 hostages had been taken and some 70 hostages were still being held. The Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki initially reported that it had taken immediate action and secured the release of all those who had been kidnapped. This claim was quickly disproved. The government then maintained that only 40 individuals had been kidnapped, and that all but five had been released and accounted for.
Al-Maliki pledged to bring the kidnappers to justice but played down the seriousness of the event. "What happened was not terrorism," he claimed. "Rather it was a struggle and a conflict between the militias of one side with those of the other." Al-Maliki came to power with the support of Shiite religious parties that maintain militias. On Wednesday, Abizaid said of al-Maliki's administration, "The government needs not to support the sectarian militias. They need to disband the sectarian militias."
The London daily al-Sharq al-Awsat (The Middle East) had reported on Nov. 3 that the government of former Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari allowed Mahdi Army militiamen to be recruited into the Ministry of Interior police units last spring. This move rewarded al-Sadr and his followers for agreeing to enter the political process as part of the Shiite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance. The newspaper alleged that this access to the levers of power enabled the Mahdi Army to become more sophisticated and gain better training and organization.
Since the U.S. invasion, more than 100 Iraqi academics have been assassinated, many of them deans or other university administrators. One estimate puts the number at 155 deans and professors killed. This month, a Baghdad University dean was killed in a drive-by shooting with his wife and child. Thousands of other educators have fled the country. Reuters reported last week that long before the mass kidnapping, professors at Baghdad University, extremely anxious at the poor security situation, were already seriously considering canceling classes for the entire academic year. Other levels of education are also affected. Schools in the troubled city of Baquba northeast of the capital have stayed closed this fall after Sunni Arab guerrillas threatened to target them if they stayed open.
In the wake of the kidnapping, al-Ujaili, the higher education minister, made a dramatic threat to close the universities if the government did not intervene to see that the hostages were released. He later retracted the threat, but many observers suggested that it was a moot point. The universities in Baghdad and other areas affected by the daily sectarian violence have not been functioning very well this fall. Only about half of students risk the daily journey to class.
Members of the targeted professions have tried to cooperate for their own safety. Dr. Hasan al-Husayni, then undersecretary of the Ministry of Health, has been calling for protection for both doctors and educators since last spring. On the Baghdadiya satellite television channel, while condemning "the targeting of Iraqi doctors which forces them to emigrate," he urged the Ministry of Higher Education to join forces with physicians.
"We are daily witnessing the killing of college professors and doctors at hospitals who get killed with treacherous hands and in cold blood by the enemies of the homeland. Those minds are the ones that build Iraq. The goal behind killing these intellects is to demolish what is being built in Iraq." He concluded, "The statistics we have about the assassination of doctors are terrifying."
The raid on the Ministry of Higher Education by a Shiite militia in the guise of national police is only the latest incident underlining the dangers faced daily by government bureaucrats and other white-collar workers. The remaining hostages, whether five or 105, have not yet been freed. The Mahdi Army may have wished to settle a score with Sunni Arabs with its mass kidnapping. What it actually did was to take the country one step further toward the precipice of collapse and long-term ignorance and poverty.