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Degrees of peril at a Baghdad university

Sectarian attacks have altered demographics at a co-ed campus. Now, even its mostly female student body isn't safe.

February 08, 2007|Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Zeena Kareem | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Zala Ghefori was walking out of her dormitory at Mustansiriya University to buy a loaf of bread when the sniper struck.

He was waiting for her by the brick back gate, opposite the bakery. Ghefori, 31, who is working on her doctorate in Arabic, was preoccupied with an exam she'd just taken. A female student in a head scarf and skirt, she felt immune to violence and didn't think to scan the street.

In the moment it took her to cross, the sniper fired.

"I felt that there was some sort of heat around me and a sound like that of the wings of birds along the way," Ghefori said. She heard the crack once, twice, many times. She kept walking toward the bakery, not realizing what was happening. One of the workers, an old woman, shouted to her to take cover.

"What brought you out at such a time when snipers were shooting at you?" the woman said. "They just missed you."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday February 12, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
Iraqi dormitory: An article in Thursday's Section A about a dormitory at Mustansiriya University in Baghdad said Shiite militias had threatened female students who weren't wearing head scarves. Although militia members have been on campus, they have not threatened female students. The article also should have noted that the dormitory is at the College of Engineering, not on the main campus.

Campus and battleground

Mustansiriya, in a mainly Sunni Arab neighborhood, is home to a student body that's predominantly Shiite Muslim, mostly from Shiite-dominated southern Iraq. It has long been co-ed. But violence is changing that demographic.

Today, with militias and insurgents increasingly threatening young men, Mustansiriya has become a mostly female campus and a battleground where the stakes for getting a degree grow by the day.

Sandwiched between the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City and the mostly Sunni Adhamiya neighborhood, the university has seen numerous professors and students -- mostly men -- killed in sectarian violence since it reopened three years ago. Last month brought the deadliest attack yet: a pair of car bombs that killed 70 and hurt more than 170.

Mustansiriya's female students increasingly find themselves caught in the sectarian fighting. University guards allow Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's Al Mahdi militia to search the women's dorm for snipers. Militia members have cut the dorm's power lines, held protests on campus and threatened women who don't wear head scarves. Sunni insurgents drop pamphlets on campus demanding that students move out. And Iraqi soldiers set up checkpoints at the university gates.

But Ghefori is determined to stay, despite the bombings, shootings and kidnappings that initially targeted men, forcing professors to disguise themselves and male students to drop out.

A round-faced woman with a ready smile, Ghefori is stubborn and unshakable. Living in the women's dorm, surrounded by about 175 other female students, Ghefori felt safe.

Ghefori, who needs at least two more years to complete her studies, didn't tell her family about the sniper attack. She would transfer to a university in the north, she said, but there's no space. Too many other students have already transferred.

And so she is stuck at Mustansiriya, studying ancient Arabic poetry in her dorm, darting out once or twice a week.

"Terror is living with us," Ghefori said. "There is not a day when there is no terror."

Mustansiriya officials say attacks have increased in recent months. Classroom windows are pocked with bullet holes. When shooting intensifies near Ghefori's dorm, the building supervisor often turns off the lights and moves students to the first floor, where they are in a better position to flee if necessary.

More students than ever are postponing their studies because of the unrest, according to the university's assistant dean for student affairs, who asked that his name not be used for fear he would be targeted.

Female students are not targets, the assistant dean said. They just are increasingly caught in the crossfire as Sunni insurgents from the surrounding neighborhood fire on the nearby Health Ministry, dominated by Shiite extremists.

"We are caught in the middle," the assistant dean said while walking on campus.

"When shooting starts, women start screaming and the strong ones try to protect those who are freaked out," said Fatima Selami, 29, who came to Mustansiriya to earn a doctorate in mathematics.

Selami wears a head scarf and loose, conservative clothing. But she's still afraid that she'll be targeted.

She said the recent bombing left her feeling hopeless. Her first thesis advisor, Mohammed Remadhan, was killed last year by insurgents who followed him home.

Her new advisor has been threatened by militias, so he scaled back his class schedule and stopped announcing class times. To advise Selami, the professor arranged a series of clandestine, off-campus meetings.

"He drives his car to a certain street. After, he calls me and tells me where to find him. When the car stops, he hands me the corrected draft and I hand him a new draft before he drives off," she said. "This is how I finished writing the dissertation."

Leaving after graduation

Selami expects to graduate soon and leave Iraq to join her husband, a fellow math student, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Last month, as she walked from the dorm to the classroom where she would successfully defend her thesis, Selami was sure she would be attacked.

"I thought that I was dreaming and that a car bomb or an IED would wake me up and bring me down to earth," she said during a break, giving a wavering smile. (An improvised explosive device, or IED, is a roadside bomb.)

Moments later, the dorm supervisor arrived to inform Selami and a crowd of friends in the audience that fighting had broken out between U.S. troops in helicopters and insurgent snipers in the surrounding neighborhood. Shops had closed, she said, and people had taken to the streets. Women were hiding in the dorm again.

Dorm residents in the crowd grew pale. Selami was angry.

"Where do we go to hide out tonight?" she said. "It will shower bullets."


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