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Gunmen seize academics at Baghdad ministry

Iraq rocked by mass kidnap at institute

As Nature went to press, agencies were struggling to confirm details of what may be one of the worst mass kidnappings since the Iraq conflict began in March 2003. At around 9:30 a.m. local time on 14 November, gunmen are reported to have abducted up to 150 academics, staff and visitors from an office of the higher-education ministry in the Karrada area of Baghdad.

Little information on the institute targeted by the kidnappers was available at the time of writing, although sources in Baghdad said that the centre involved is a branch of the ministry that helps students and professors obtain placements in overseas universities. Some of the staff would have had a scientific background. The identity of the kidnappers isn't known, but those taken include both Shia and Sunni Muslims. According to some reports, the higher-education minister, Abed Theyab, immediately ordered the closure of all universities until security is improved.

The timing may have been chosen to coincide with the Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs, held 11–15 November in Cairo, Egypt, according to Abbas Al-Hussaini, a civil engineer at the University of Westminster, UK. Al-Hussaini is also general secretary of the Iraqi Higher Education Organising Committee in London, which was set up in January 2004 to help reconstruct Iraq's research and higher-education system.

Security has been tightened at Iraq's higher-education ministry. Credit: MAHMOUD RAOUF MAHMOUD/REUTERS

The Pugwash organization, which campaigns against armed conflict, depends heavily on academics for its work in the Middle East, as well as other regions. Al-Hussaini believes that the kidnappings are not related to religious conflict between Sunnis and Shias, but are part of a plan to destablize Iraq coordinated by former intelligence officials loyal to Saddam Hussein.

If the details are confirmed, the abduction will be the biggest single event in a steady campaign of attacks and assassinations against Iraqi academics during the bloody aftermath of Saddam Hussein's fall. More than 200 are thought to have been killed, and hundreds more have fled the country (see Nature 441, 1036–1037; 2006).

Lack of investigation and prosecutions means that little is known about who carries out such attacks, and the motives are thought to vary. Some victims have certainly been targeted in revenge for past political allegiances, but many believe that there is also an organized campaign to eliminate intellectuals, as part of an attempt to make the country ungovernable.

“Terrorist forces are out to scare the scientific community,” Al-Hussaini told Nature earlier this year. He believes that academics are targeted because they enjoy “much greater prestige and status than in the West, and could transform Iraq into a modern society”.

Scientific and human-rights organizations, including Scholars at Risk, the International Council for Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, have called for assassinations and attacks to be better investigated, for security to be boosted at universities, and for those most at risk to be given asylum at universities abroad.

But the killings continue. Among the most recent murders was that of Essam al-Rawi, a geologist and president of the University Professors' Union, who was shot dead on 30 October. A few days later, gunmen killed Jassim al-Asadi, a dean of the University of Baghdad, along with his wife and son.

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