Baghdad School Director receives death threats

Dec 2, 2003 by

Christina Asquith
Special Middle-East Correspondent

Dr. Mohammed Al Azawee fears for his life. He is not a U.S. soldier, nor a Baathist, nor candidate for political office. He is a teacher. Since the fall of the regime, he was promoted to Baghdad School Director, the U.S. equivalent of school superintendent. For this, he receives death threats, including a letter with a bullet inside.

Christina Asquith

While the schools have been largely open and functioning in Iraq since October 1st, education leaders cooperating with the Americans are being asked to do much more than teach. In addition to Dr. Al Azawee, the two other directors for the Baghdad school system have received death threats. Several teachers have been killed-at least two on the job. Most recently, the school’s director for the Diwaniya province in southern Iraq was shot to death on his way to education headquarters. At the university level, there are also problems. At Basra University, four professors have been killed in recent months, all by unknown assailants. University president Dr. Salman D. Salman recently hired an armed security guard to accompany him on campus, as his mingles with students.

School leaders are not the only targets in the postwar terrorism that threatens the future stability of Iraq. Leaders of most sectors of the nascent rebuilding effort have come under attack, including politicians, women’s groups, the schools contractors, judges, the Iraqi police and, as we saw this Saturday, even Korean diplomats.

The threats against Dr. Azawee offer insight into who is causing the chaos and ways in which the U.S.-led government here could change its policy to make the schools safer. Dr. Azawee’s case also shines a light on the spirit of dedication among Iraqi educators that the U.S. must support for the rebuilding of schools to succeed.

Dr. Al Azawee was sitting in his office signing papers one morning last June when an American arrived. Dr. Al Azawee’s “office” was one of the many drab, 1970s government buildings in Baghdad that had sporadic electricity, no phones, dirty concrete floors and broken windows. Dr. Al Azawee remembers that the American was an armed, U.S. colonel, who looked awkward amongst the crowds of veiled women in long black skirts and men in ill-fitting collared shirts and slacks. They all watched him as he walked to Dr. Al Azawee’s office. He brought with him a group of school teachers who had been identified through records as high ranking Baath Party members. Through an Arabic translator, the U.S. colonel instructed Dr. Azawee to “fire them all.”

Dr. Al Azawee, who is in his 60s and a lifelong educator, weighed his options. These discharges were required under the U.S.’s May 16th “DeBaathification Proclamation” aimed at ridding Iraqi government of supporters of Saddam Hussein. Every government worker who was in the top three ranks of the Baath Party had to be fired-which meant thousands of teachers and university professors.

Like many Iraqis, Dr. Al Azawee did not personally agree with the “DeBaathification Proclamation.” He understood that many Baath Party members deserved to be punished. But many of his colleagues joined the Baath Party out of pressure. Others joined out of need for the salary bonus, because teachers were being paid on average $6 a month at the time. Many were ‘lame’ members, meaning they only signed up, but didn’t terrorize or intimidate other faculty members. Many of them were good teachers and principals that Dr. Al Azawee was hesitant to lose.

But although Dr. Al Azawee was schools director, he worked for the Ministry of Education, which like all Iraqi ministries, is being run by three employees of the U.S. Defense Department. These Pentagon employees hold the title of “advisors’ but essentially run the show. (In June, the U.S. appointed a new Iraqi Minister of Education, Dr. Al ‘Adin Alwan. He is now officially head of the ministry, but still must answer to his “U.S. advisors’.)

Despite the U.S.’s stated goal of ‘handing power back to the Iraqis’, Dr. Al Azawee had no power to make individual distinctions between employees.

“This was not my decision,” Dr. Al Azawee says. “This was the U.S. government’s decision.

Dr. Al Azawee remembers the angry way the teachers looked at him when he fired them.

The next day, Dr. Al Azawee received this letter: “If you don’t give us our jobs back, we will kill you.” Inside the envelope was a bullet.

“At the time, there was no army, no government. I had nothing to protect me.” A few days later, Dr. Al Azawee quit.

Five months later, in mid November, I met with Dr. Al Azawee. He had just returned to his job as Baghdad Schools Director. He said he believed it was the right thing to do, and many of his colleagues had pressured him into it. I asked him if he feared for his life.

“I am a faithful man. I believe in God. I don’t carry a weapon. There is an Arab proverb: ‘you must go on in your destiny until God decides to take you away.”

Then he told me that the day earlier, his counterpart in the Diwaniya district in southern Iraq had been killed. “We don’t know why,” he said. “The coalition troops are unable to protect Iraqis.”

Outside, barbed wire ringing Dr. Al Azawee’s administrative building-intended to protect workers from suicide bombers who had been increasingly going after Baghdad’s ‘soft targets’– had been pulled back for cars trying to park. A few local Iraqis hired by the ministry as security guards were wandering around, far from the checkpoint.

Before he was murdered, the Director of Diwaniya schools, Dr. Hamood, was known to have worked hand in hand with the American military rebuilding the schools over the summer. Many Iraqis who cooperate with the Americans complain this makes them the enemy to other Iraqis, particularly ex Baathists who have nothing to gain from a rebuilding effort that excludes them. However, those who want to improve their society have little choice. Either they join the Americans, do nothing or join the terrorists. Dr. Hamood, who himself was a mid-level Baath Party member, chose to work with the Americans.

“We opened 43 schools together,” recalls Army Major Richard Appel, a civil affairs commander in Iraq, who is also a school principal back home in Wisconsin. Major Appel had been assigned to the Diwaniya district after the war. “Dr. Hamood went out of his way to spend correctly the money we gave him.”

Major Appel knew about the threats, and said Dr. Hamood, who has a wife and children, decided to do his job anyway because he believed in the schools. “Once they start to work with us, these thugs come out and intimidate them because they’re losing control.”

Dr. Hamood was gunned down in his front yard on his way to school headquarters in mid November.

I thought of Dr. Hamood when George Bush came to town on Thanksgiving, and gave this message to the Iraqi people: “You have an opportunity to seize the moment and rebuild your great county, based on human dignity and freedom.” More than 300 American servicemen have sacrificed their lives so far, and so also have many innocent Iraqis-teachers. They were trying to rebuild their country and lost their freedom. The U.S. can help others like them by offering more protection, or giving them more of a say in running their own Ministry of Education.

In recent months, the U.S. government here has loosened its “DeBaathification Proclamation” policy and allowed Baath Party members to apply for exemptions. Iraqis staffing the Ministry of Education are slowly reviewing their applications. This is the right step-and one that truly hands power back to the Iraqis.

Meanwhile, Dr. Al Azawee spends his day trying to reshape the schools in a way that pleases his employer, his countrymen and his vision for a strong Iraq. He said religious clergymen visit his office regularly, requesting permission to deliver Islamic lectures to students. The U.S. would never approve of this-and Dr. Al Azawee personally agrees it’s inappropriate. He kindly explains to the clergymen that Iraq is building a secular school system, in which children take one class of religion a week, and the rest they must learn in mosques. In doing so, Dr. Azawee knows he may be making yet another enemy-religious fundamentalists-but so be it.

Just the other day, Dr. Al Azawee was walking up the stairs of his administrative building when he ran into one of the Baath Party teachers that he had fired in June-and the one he suspects sent him the threatening letter and bullet.

“I believe it was him because when we met eyes, he ran away.”

Dr. Al Azawee took this as a positive sign that he is winning his own battle with the school terrorists, for now.

“We have no choice but to work under the threats,” he says. “This is the life.”

Christina Asquith Special Middle-East Correspondent for has written about education for The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Sports Illustrated and The UK Guardian. She recently finished her first book, The Paper School, about her first year as an emergency certified teacher in a tough school in North Philadelphia. She can be contacted in Baghdad at


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