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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 May 2007, 06:59 GMT 07:59 UK
Iraqi students brave the bombs
By Andrew North
BBC Baghdad correspondent

The entrance to Mustansiriya University in Baghdad
Mustansiriya University was the scene of a double suicide attack in January
Imagine if one of London's universities was hit by a double suicide bombing and nearly 90 students and lecturers were killed and another 140 injured.

That is what happened in January this year at Baghdad's Mustansiriya University, one of Iraq's most prestigious educational institutions.

In Britain, the shock, outrage and mourning would have lasted weeks, probably years.

There would have been ministerial visits, memorial services, compensation, inquiries and promises that such a thing could never happen again.

But in Iraq these days, even events like this are quickly forgotten, the memories soon obliterated by the next atrocity.

No Iraqi minister came to Mustansiriya to offer condolences.

Real dangers

There are real dangers in travelling to the campus, in east Baghdad, not far from Sadr City.

But thousands of students still risk the journey every day, as we found when we went there to see how the university is recovering.

Teachers and students are ready to face this bad situation, to try to end this year, to do their exams
English teacher

Four months on and end of year exams are approaching, but memories of the blast still tear on the students' memories.

"There was blood and dead bodies everywhere," Nur, an English student told me. "It was terrible."

Then she took a swipe at the government. "No-one came to see us. They have given us no help."

First there was a suicide car bomb at the university entrance. But as students fled, a second suicide bomber wearing a vest of explosives plunged into the crowd. Sunni extremists linked to al-Qaeda are believed to have been responsible.

The site of the attack is now lined by the same high concrete blast walls that have increasingly become the standard response to violence everywhere in the city.

Academics targeted

Many of the students were so badly burned they were unrecognisable, said university vice president Dr Fadhil al-Ameri.

Signposts on the university campus
The campus is run down and there is no electricity

"They want to kill the life in Iraq," referring to those behind such attacks, "especially the academic people."

Academics have come under a systematic onslaught from certain extremists over the past four years, bent on snuffing out Iraq's intelligentsia.

More than 300 professors, teachers and educational workers have been killed. Hundreds more have fled Iraq, or are now too scared to work.

"Maybe 25% cent are not coming to the university now," said one English lecturer, who did not want to give his name.

Worsening sectarian divisions have played a part. Mustansiriya university is in an overwhelmingly Shia area and effectively under the control of the Mehdi army militia of Moqtada Sadr.

So some Sunni professors fear being targeted if they travel here.

'Trust in God'

Despite the terrifying gauntlet of threats that must be run just to get here, the university was surprisingly full of activity when we visited.

Groups of students chatted on the paved walkways between lectures. Photographers moved amongst the crowds, offering to take portraits. The results were pinned up for sale on nearby walls.

Students view graduation photographs
Students view graduation photographs

"Teachers and students are ready to face this bad situation," the English teacher said, "to try to end this year, to do their exams."

I found Nur studying for her English grammar exam in a dark and peeling classroom.

"It is very difficult. There is no electricity and it's very dirty here."

She says she doesn't feel safe, despite the US and Iraqi security campaign that has got underway since the bombings.

"I fear an explosion at any time. When I get on the bus, or take a taxi, I fear the person next to me will be a suicide bomber."

But she is determined to keep coming to college. "We trust in God," she said, "and we want to make a better future for ourselves."

"It is a challenge to the terrorists coming to college," said another incredibly brave student who I will call Raja. "I am not afraid."

She admits many of her fellow students are terrified.

Foreign faces are a rare sight here now. Heads turned everywhere we went.

In one office, we heard a whispered request you hear so often in Baghdad. "Can you help us get asylum?"

Everywhere we went, we were watched by young men linked to the Mehdi army.

Iraq's politicians may claim the militia is being rolled back. But the university, like nearby Sadr City, remains firmly in its grip.

The militia-men, with their carefully-trimmed beards, guard every entrance.

Yet right now, amid the chaos of Baghdad, they are about the only protection Mustansiriya University has from another attack.


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