Mass layoffs at the University of Tikrit are causing political and sectarian tensions in Iraq. The decision to lay off 140 teaching and other staff from the University was made by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, which is based in Baghdad and supervises the work of Iraqi universities, in October.
The move was made as part of the de-Baathification process, which began after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled the regime of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who was the head of the Baath party. After the Baath party, which had pan-Arab and nationalist tendencies but which was, in reality, dominated by Sunni Muslims, was removed from power a campaign was launched by the interim government to remove all Baath party members from power. Although the campaign has since mellowed it still continues to this day.
And the removal of the university staff in the north western Iraqi city of Tikrit, which also happens to be Saddam Hussein’s hometown, is one of the latest de-Baathification incidents. However tensions are rising because some see the dismissals not as part of the de-Baathification process, but rather, as motivated by sectarian loyalties.
The Iraqiya bloc in Iraq’s parliament, which is mostly Sunni Muslim and headed by former Prime Minister Ayed Allawi, accused the ruling and mostly Shiite Muslim National Alliance bloc, headed by current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, of being behind the dismissals for sectarian reasons. Unfortunately the tensions and accusations come at a time when worries about sectarian conflict turning violent are rising. The presence of US forces had ameliorated sectarian tensions which during bloody conflicts during 2006 and 2007, saw tens of thousands of Iraqis killed and millions displaced.
However the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research said that its decision was based on legislation and that it was not meant to target Sunni Muslims. “In addition to the 140 professors from Tikrit, there will be many other university professors who will be obliged to retire,” ministry spokesman Qasim Mohammed told NIQASH.
“The decision will target all those covered under the AccountabilityandJustice Law. The Ministry is only implementing parliament’s instructions,” he said, referring to the 2008 law enacted for the purpose of creating a more moderate response to the problem of removing Baath party members from positions of power in modern, post-Hussein Iraq. The law was moderated because just as ordinary Russians had to join the Communist party and ordinary Germans had to join the Nazi party, many middle class Iraqis were forced to join the Baath party if they wanted to hold a good job or have any chance of promotion.
The new 2008 law on the subject meant that some Baath party members who had state-sponsored jobs would be able to keep them, on the condition that they were not high ranking or influential. The law also said that anyone who had been involved in areas where they had repressed their fellow Iraqis, such as in the intelligence services or in Hussein’s personal paramilitary, would have to leave their jobs. And Qasim stressed that, “all those who were removed were members of those repressive organisations.”
These dismissals are not the only such incident in Iraq. There has been a recent campaign targeting former members of the Baath party and the Iraqi army in several Iraqi states. The campaigns began in Baghdad and have also happened in the states of Diyala, Anbar and Salahaddin. The arrests are apparently part of a plan to pre-emptively quell any potential for violence as the US troop withdrawal nears.
Of course, not everyone sees it this way. Ali Saleh Hussein, the president of Tikrit University resigned in protest at the layoffs. And the state government of Salahaddin, of which Tikrit is the administrative centre, threatened to withhold its natural resources.
“These procedures pose a threat to the unity of the Iraqi people,” a member of Salahaddin’s provincial council, Ali al-Ujaili, told NIQASH. And if the Baghdad ministry did not repeal its decision, then Salahaddin threatened to cut off the electricity and oil produced in the state.
“These are the demands of the people of this province and those measures represent them,” al-Ujaili explained. On Oct. 26, hundreds of Salahaddin locals demonstrated in the Tikrit city centre, holding up banners demanding the release of several of the prisoners and for the dissolution of the AccountabilityandJustice Commission, which was set up to oversee the law of the same name.
Additionally those who had lost their jobs denied any wrong doing. “The decision was unjust because none of the dismissed professors ever held any high ranking position in the former regime nor were they part of any repressive organisations,” said Nahidh Hamid, one of the professors who’d lost his job and who had participated in the demonstrations.
The Salahaddin state government politicians called upon the Iraqi federal executive to intervene in the case and also called upon other state government to stand with them.
In the northern state of Ninawa, where a similar decision was made against some Mosul teaching staff and government employees, the state governor Atheel al-Nujaifi told NIQASH that they would do exactly that. “Ninawa will follow in the footsteps of Salahaddin and will not abide by the decision of the ministry in Baghdad. The ministry’s decision is sectarian in nature,” he explained.
Protests were also being made at federal level. On Oct. 25, the Iraqiya list called upon al-Maliki to stop the campaign of arrests and layoffs, saying that it would lead to divisions and instability around the country. The Iraqiya politicians also called upon the Iraqi judiciary not to be swayed by political forces.
Additionally members of the Iraqiya list pointed to a previous political agreement that was supposed to have suspended the work of the AccountabilityandJustice Commission in favour of a whole new commission, whose members would be elected by the Iraqi Parliament rather than appointed by the Prime Minister.
This move was agreed upon as the current government was being formed in 2010. Because the major political parties ended up with such an equal share of seats in Parliament, many negotiations were conducted, deals done and concessions extracted before the current ruling coalition – headed by al-Maliki - was able to take power. One of these involved the suspension of the AccountabilityandJustice Commission. In fact, two letters were sent to the Commission by the executive declaring that it should cease work until a new commission was formed.
The agreement exists, Iraqiya MP, Nahida al-Dayni told NIQASH. “However, the National Alliance does not respect political agreements. The ministry’s procedures are sectarian in nature and they only target the Sunnis,” al-Dayni added. “I have the names of many Shiite Muslims who should also be subject to the AccountabilityandJustice law but they have not been targeted. And they now hold high ranking government positions.”
However a senior MP with the National Alliance, Ali al-Adib, rejected any accusations that the current moves were made with sectarian bias, saying the decisions were “legally correct and not supposed to marginalize Sunni Muslims.”
Another National alliance MP, Ali Shalla, explained that “the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research is actioning decisions that were reached by the Commission before that political agreement was made. They are decisions that were not acted upon previously and they do not target any specific sect,” he insisted.
Meanwhile Ali al-Jibouri, a professor of political science at the University of Baghdad, expressed concern. He felt that decisions such as these constitute a danger to the unity of the Iraqi people, especially in light of the impending US troop withdrawal.
“Such decisions will ultimately lead to sectarian strife and spark a civil war again,” he told NIQASH, adding that anything that could provoke sectarian tensions should be avoided at the moment.