Kurdish University is Oasis of Free Thought in Chaotic Iraq

Kurdish University is Oasis of Free Thought in Chaotic Iraq

IRBIL, Iraq -- A guard armed with a machine gun stands at the gate of the compound, which shares a high concrete wall with a prison at the rear. But inside the University of Kurdistan, the only English-language university in Kurdish-controlled Iraq, free minds are at work.

Gates open to a freshly laid lawn area. Off to the right, a four-story steel-and-glass facility comes equipped with lockers, air-conditioned computer labs and prayer rooms. Faculty members and students say their college is a break from the Saddam Hussein era, when the curriculum was controlled from Baghdad.

"Freedom of expression is the mark of a modern community, not the buildings or technologies," said Abbas Vali, the school's dean. "Under Saddam, university education was an extension of a political system adapted to meet state demands. Today we are free to teach what we feel students need in a democratic climate. We have a novel system here and we hope it can become a model."

Opened in September, the school has about 300 undergraduates and 50 graduate students, ages 18-45, in disciplines ranging from economics to petroleum engineering. This is the "nucleus of a very large university," Vali noted, adding that the student body might one day exceed 3,000 men and women spread out over multiple campuses.

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