The Next Six Months

Jan 28, 2004 by

Christina Asquith
Special Middle-East Correspondent

Dr. Abdul Latif Al Ramahi was on his way to work last week when his driver was forced off the road by eight masked men. As director of the Arabic Studies Center at Mustansiriyah University, Dr. Al Ramahi, 55, spent most of his time on scholarly matters, and had no obvious enemies. He stepped out of his car, assuming he was a victim of carjacking. But the assailants, each with a red checkered scarf hiding their faces, shot him 32 times, and then disappeared into the Iraqi desert. They left his driver alive to tell the tale.

Christina Asquith

Turns out it was Dr. Ramahi’s belief in democracy that cost him his life. The night before, he had appeared on local television appealing to Iraqis to support democratic government. For that, his academic colleagues suspect, the terrorists made an example of him. (There is no investigation because the Iraqi police do not have a detective’s unit yet.) On college campuses that once celebrated freedom from Saddam’s climate of fear, professors are struggling with whether they, too, believe enough in democracy to risk their lives. Most are too afraid of repercussions to exercise free speech.

The six months that lay between now and when Americans hand sovereignty to the Iraqis is the most important months in the nation’s history. Dr. Ramahi’s murder is a horrifying example of the effectiveness of terrorism to hijack this delicate phase, even against the most powerful military in the world.

This is why the Iraqi people need the support of Americans more than ever now. To start with, American must be prepared for the campaign of terror to be put into high gear in the most petrifying of manners. While it’s impossible to predict, the word around Baghdad is that the terrorists plan on turning up their efforts and striking at anyone and anything that supports the US or is loosely connected to a promise of democracy. Last week, suicide bombers have killed 18 blue collar workers standing on line for work outside the US headquarters. Last month, they killed three New Year’s Eve revelers when they blew up Nabils restaurant, a popular family hotspot with live music, kebabs and tea (Iraqi Muslims don’t drink alcohol.)

People around Baghdad are tired of the violence and support of the Americans is waning. The 3,000 US workers inside the Coalition headquarters and the 140,000 soldiers here are tired of the violence. I can only imagine how it must all look back in the U.S. There is a temptation to give up and get out.

Consider these next 6 months the true test of America’s resolve to fight terrorism and help Iraq. When I first came to Baghdad in June, the city had no electricity or air conditioning, the streets were dirty, buildings were destroyed-but Iraqis I interviewed were alive with freedom, joy at Saddam’s demise and buoyed by a vision of a future without terror. It was a testament to the strength of spirit to overcome material shortcomings; to endure suffering out of a hope. It is this spirit and this hope that the terrorists are now waging war against.

So we must fight the war with a determined resolve to plow ahead undeterred. There are many people here who remain hopeful. They soldier on in spirit. This Sunday night, shortly after learning of Dr. Ramahi’s senseless murder, I met 25 soldiers of spirit. They were the Fulbright Scholars-Iraqis who had been selected for graduate study in America in public health, law, public administration, environmental science, journalism, business-accounting, and English. After one year, they will return to Iraq to make their homeland a better place.

They stood on a makeshift stage inside what was only a year ago Saddam’s convention center. They shook hands with Ambassador Paul Bremer. Their parents and family took photos from the aisles. In a testament to the insanity and effectiveness of the terrorists, many of the Fulbright recipients wouldn’t speak publicly because they feared recriminations against their family for their participation in an American program. For them and their families and everyone in their village and tribe, the dream of freedom that Americans promised is becoming a reality. They refuse to be afraid.

There are other victories: The Iraq President of Technical Institutes is now in the U.S. as a guest of Dr. George Boggs, President of the American Association for Community College; together, they are planning partnerships between US and Iraqi universities. A recently formed group called the Iraqi American Society for Higher Education just organized a trip for 45 Iraqi professors living abroad to return to Iraq and to teach seminars. The US State Department recently sent two scientists to Baghdad to start a $2 million program to retrain Iraqi weapons scientists to work in the rebuilding. The internet lab at Baghdad University opened last week. Each day, scores of professors and deans risk their lives by working with the Americans to improve their campuses.

These small signs of victory are increasingly hard to see amidst the much more destructive and high profile violence of the terrorism. But they are happening each day, and keeping hope alive here. Whether one supported this war or not, we’re deep into it now and we’ve brought 26 million Iraqis with us. I still believe something good should come out of it. There are six months to go. Let’s show the Iraqis and the US soldiers that we support them and their fight for freedom.

Below are excerpts from the “Iraqi Higher Education Newsletter” that includes way to help get involved:

IRAQ UNIVERSITIES AND TECHNICAL INSTITUTES SEEK GENEROUS FOREIGN PATRONS The immediate need most felt by almost all institutions of higher learning in Iraq is the necessity to acquire and restock the science laboratories with all sorts of scientific equipment, from microscopes to glass tubes and chemical or physical or biological materials/elements. During the prior regime and for more than 25 years, very little money was invested in modernizing the experimental laboratories on campuses. The looting and burning of the facilities have exasperated the situation. The dean of the school of pharmacy at Baghdad University made the point that his students will have to content themselves with theoretical knowledge until the day comes when the laboratories will be refurbished. (For more information, please email at )

Donations of textbooks are trickling in from English and US universities. More books are needed, as university libraries lack books, journals, CDs and magazines. The English Department at Baghdad University has pleaded for books of Shakespeare, Milton, American and English writers after their collections were looted and burned. Likewise, the English Departments at Mosul, Basra, Karbala, Kufa, Al-Mustansariyya, and Babil Universities have made similar requests for donation and for patrons to assist. (For more information, please contact Imad at )


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