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Iraq’s Former Higher Education Minister Strives to Improve Universities

/ 03 May 2021

Iraq’s Former Higher Education Minister Strives to Improve Universities

From a small, windowless room on the first floor of Baghdad’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Abdul Razzaq Al-Issa oversaw Iraq’s universities and research activities during a difficult period when the Islamic State controlled large swaths of his country.

“I was fully aware of the task’s difficulties and challenges, but I was independent and not affiliated with any party,” Al-Issa, who was in office from 2016 to 2018, said in a recent telephone interview. “I had a business plan and a clear strategy that was not subject to any partisan favoritism.”

Al-Issa, who is now devoted to writing his thoughts on reforming his country’s higher-education sector after it was almost completely destroyed, succeeded in setting plans to restart universities that were closed by terrorist organizations. He also successfully protected many professors and students who were at risk. (See two related articles, “University of Mosul President Looks to a Post-Da’esh Future” and “What Education Is Like Under the Islamic State.”)

“Al-Issa’s super courage and independence made his mission, at that difficult time, of a great impact on Iraq’s education during that critical phase of the country’s history,” said Obay Sa’eed Al-Dewachi, who served as president of the University of Mosul from 2004 to 2019.

Reopening Universities Was a Priority

Upon taking office as minister, Al-Issa’s priority was clear: to restart the universities in Mosul, Al-Anbar and Fallujah, which had closed after violent terrorist attacks destroyed much of their infrastructure. (See a related article, “Islamic State Advance in Iraq Closes Eight Universities.”)

At the same time, Al-Issa issued an exceptional decision granting these universities’ students who had not been able to attend classes for more than two years the opportunity to resume their studies, while providing scholarships for them to help cope with living difficulties after the destruction of their homes.

“I feel so proud for being able to support people who have been wronged. First among them were the students who were in school and forced to drop out.”

Abdul Razzaq Al-Issa  

“I feel so proud for being able to support people who have been wronged,” he said. “First among them were the students who were in school and forced to drop out.”

The University of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest university, was Al-Issa’s first destination. He set up a reconstruction plan for the university in coordination with its president, and discussed how to help all its students return. Many students had fled to the nearby cities of Duhok, Erbil and Kirkuk in northern Iraq after the Islamic State, or ISIS, seized Mosul in June 2014; those who remained had been forced to drop out until the city was liberated in 2017. (See a related article, “Mosul’s Students Return to a Battered Campus.”)

Al-Issa recalls the details of his visit to Mosul after its liberation, and being the first Iraqi official to do so.

“The commander of the Mosul forces gave me a half-an-hour visit, in order to secure my return during the day and before ISIS members knew about it,” he said. “But the visit exceeded two hours due to the large campus,” he added. “I was also keen to attend a discussion by a chemistry Ph.D. student in a burnt room without electricity to congratulate the student.”

In light of extremely complex security conditions, communication among university presidents was not easy. In general, such meetings took place at conferences held outside Iraq due to the danger of traveling inside the country.

At that time, Al-Issa chose to spend the night in a room next to his office in the ministry, especially after he received death threats several times. (See a related article, “Iraqi Researcher’s Assassination Stirs Fears of Renewed Violence Against Academics.”)

Removing Chemical Weapons

Being responsible for scientific research, Al-Issa participated during his tenure as higher education minister in the mission of ridding Iraq of remnants of chemical weapons. His specialization in organic chemistry, as he obtained a bachelor’s degree from the University of Basra in 1971 and a doctorate from the University of Liverpool in 1979, helped him in this regard.

abdul-razzaq-al-issa – chemical weapons
The former higher education minister, whose academic specialty is organic chemistry, participated in efforts to rid Iraq of remnants of chemical weapons. Above, he visits a site with an inspection team in 2017 (Photo courtesy of Abdul Razzaq Al-Issa).

His work began with the formation of a research team that secretly visited a site of such wastes, about 15 kilometers from Baghdad, in coordination with the Iraqi Army’s Samarra Operations Command, which accompanied the team during the visit and worked to provide full protection for the site and the roads leading to it.

The main objective of these visits was to assess the condition of the site and study the geological map before reaching proposals to safely remove the remnants of chemical weapons.

“We also obtained American documents and reports of the international inspection committees that helped us decide on the appropriate method of destroying the site,” said Al-Issa, noting that this project drained large sums of money spent on research committees and delaying the completion of the mission.

“The project was a source of profit for many of those who received money as allowances for travel and transportation, as well as for the expenses of inspection committees coming from outside Iraq,” he said.

The most difficult step was to persuade the intergovernmental Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to endorse the ministry’s plan to destroy the site, while developing proposals for monitoring, according to Al-Issa.

“We managed to obtain their approval, and a destruction plan was made for the entire site without any damage,” he said. “We also obtained a certificate for Iraq to complete the chemical weapons destruction program by the director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in the Hague in 2018.”

Sectarian Political Pressure

Security and logistical difficulties were not the only obstacles faced by Al-Issa to advance the country’s higher-education sector. He faced pressure from communities that rejected his policies due to his independence from the parliament’s sectarian quota system.

He was called twice for questioning by the parliament, with the aim of pushing him to agree to allow failed students to pass to a higher academic year.

“Most of these demands were an attempt to impose academic results, select students for universities on the basis of political loyalty, and set different standards for academic excellence that do not reflect students’ actual potential,” he said. (See a related article, “Theoretical Swimming: Iraqi Student Life Under Religious Rule.”)

“Al-Issa is one of the unique people who were qualified to push the wheel of higher education and scientific research in Iraq and develop it after the suffering we experienced as a result of the political and security situation.”

Abbas Taqi   A former president of the University of Kirkuk

During his two years as minister of higher education, Al-Issa faced repeated attempts to influence his decisions until the parliament finally ousted him. He lost his position despite the prime minister’s support for his continuation.

“I did not accept exceptions,” he said. “I clung to my independence in the face of pressure and threat messages I received from ‘uneducated’ parliamentarians, because I took an obligation on myself to preserve the independence and quality of higher education.”

Holding On to Hope

After leaving his government post, Al-Issa has been writing about his experience and thoughts.  He has also published several books, most notably Building Blocks: A Journey in Higher Education, The Use of Technology and E-Learning in Solving Higher Education Problems, and The Elimination of Hazardous Atomic Energy Waste: Process and Technical Corruption.

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“Al-Issa is one of the unique people who were qualified to push the wheel of higher education and scientific research in Iraq and develop it after the suffering we experienced as a result of the political and security situation,” Abbas Taqi, a former president of the University of Kirkuk, which took in many students displaced by ISIS, said in a phone call.

The main dilemma currently facing Iraq’s higher education is the departure of qualified professors, and the appointment of hundreds of “unqualified professors” who reject any change in curricula or teaching methods, says Al-Issa. He believes that reforming his country’s higher education has become “very difficult” under this ruling system, as well as resistance to reform from influential people in power and university professors.

Still, Al-Issa chooses to remain in Iraq and continue his efforts there. “My country is my first and last choice” he said. “I will not leave it, whatever the case.”




One CommentJoin the Conversation
  1. Hamid Sh. Aldulaimi says:

    Proud to work under the leadership of your Excellency for the Ministry.
    He was a professional minister with high leadership qualifications.


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