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Iraqi Ministers, Academic Community Face Up to Security Threats - 2004-09-21

Since the fall of the Saddam Hussein government last year, violence in Iraq has largely continued unabated. Besides targeting Iraqi and coalition military forces, militants also attack civilians, including government ministers and members of Iraq's academic community.

It is late in the day, and Iraqi Interim Government minister Pascale Warda decides it is time to go home.

Several of her guards, carrying assault rifles, line the entrance of the Transmigration and Displacement Ministry, accompanying the minister. They are some of the roughly 30 guards she has altogether. For security reasons, they ask that their exact numbers, the model and color of the cars in the minister's convoy and its route not be revealed.

It is dangerous to be a government minister in Iraq. Speaking in London, Prime Minister Iyad Allawi revealed this week that he has escaped four assassination attempts in the past three months alone.

He is lucky. Dozens of government officials have been killed in Iraq since the U.S.-led coalition handed over authority in June, while a number of others have escaped assassination attempts. Ms. Warda believes she narrowly missed assassination in a strange incident in which her car was pursued.

"They would like to film me, and fix it on me, and they don't stop," she said. "Even police on the street were stopping them and they didn't stop. They made an accident with another car. Really, it was providential that we should not die this day."

The 43-year-old minister is a member of Iraq's ethnic-Assyrian minority group. She spent 15 years studying and working in France before returning to Iraq in 1995 and joining the resistance to the Saddam Hussein regime.

Like most members of Iraq's interim administration, Ms. Warda lives in a heavily fortified compound in central Baghdad. Blast walls five meters high encircle the enclave, and visitors must undergo a series of searches at checkpoints complete with armed guards, tanks and razor wire.

At home with her husband and two small daughters, Minister Warda eats a late breakfast. She has not gone to the ministry yet, partly because, for security reasons, she regularly alternates the time that she leaves home. Also, her deputy minister escaped an assassination attempt the night before.

But Ms. Warda says she is dedicated to the work she is doing for Iraq.

"Everybody's afraid. Everybody thinks that there is danger, and we know, we are conscious of the matter," she added. "But you know, we don't stop, we continue. We say that this is the choice, the only choice, that we must continue to deal with our situation. This is the situation of the present time and we are called on now to realize the progress of our country in this situation in this time, even if it's a short time, but we do believe that we are doing a really good thing for our country."

The minister's husband, William Warda is a party official with the Assyrian Democratic Movement. He also fears for the safety of his wife and his family.

"I don't feel rest until I receive call from her, that I am in the house, I am here," he said. "I am always worried about that, especially for the kids. Because there is kidnapping. And a few days [ago] the school started and we are thinking how we will take them to the schools and take them back. It's another subject we will have to think about."

As violence in Iraq continues, government ministers are not the only ones under threat. University professors and others in the academic community have also come under attack by insurgent groups.

Exact figures are difficult to come by. Officials at Baghdad University say eight of its professors have been murdered since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime. Some reports put the figure across Iraq as high as 40 professors and academics killed, with at least five assassination attempts made on such people every month.

The apparent targeting of academics has led to fears of "brain drain," as those with the financial means to leave Iraq do so. According to the Iraq University Teachers' Union, 1000 of Iraq's estimated 14,000 university professors have already left.

Nabeal Younis is a professor of international relations at Baghdad University. He says the militant Islamists want to eliminate what they see as strong competition from intellectuals with a more modern outlook.

"Their aim is to get the country empty of any kind of thinking, or think-tanks, or any kind of mind [intellectual] people," he noted. "We are not rich. We are not businessmen. Just we have our opinion. We tell the truth, in an academic way. This is the only thing we have. So when they try to assassinate, kill or threatened most of us, there must be a reason - and the reason is the mind."

Professor Younis blames the phenomenon on the lack of security brought about by the U.S. led invasion of Iraq. Despite repeated pleas for assistance by the academic community to the Ministry of Higher Education and U.S. forces, Mr. Younis says the group remains at risk.

"We've told the Ministry and they did nothing," he added. "We told the Americans and they did nothing. We don't have enough money to get our own bodyguards. So we have to depend on ourselves."

The Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies is an independent research group based in Baghdad. The group has had to move its office this year, after gunmen opened fire on its original office. The office was attacked at night, and no one was hurt.

The group's director, Sadoun al-Doulame, says the targeting of Iraq's intellectuals and government ministers reveals the weaknesses in the security aparatus, and the number of groups competing for power in the new Iraq.

"We have a golden opportunity to build a new society, a new state," he said. "And, as I said, every group [is] trying to build that state, that country, according to its interests. And the terrorists have special interests. And they want to build, to modify Iraq, according to their ideology. That's why. So they regard all the intellectual people as a first enemy. And they condemn them as a spy for the Americans and so on."

Mr. al-Doulame says despite the signs of disintegration, he does not believe Iraq will erupt into civil war. But he thinks Iraq will see years of instability before it becomes safe again for government ministers, academics like himself, and others trying to move Iraq forward as a modern, democratic society.