November 1, 2005 | National Review Online

Winning, One Student at a Time

Authored by: Joseph Morrison Skelly, 2003 FDD Academic Fellow.

Dr. Talib Al-Zaidi was an Iraqi patriot. That is precisely why terrorists in Baquba murdered him. But with the assistance of an array of American patriots — both soldiers and citizens alike — his proud legacy lives on in the city of his birth.

A world-renowned engineer, Al-Zaidi fled Iraq for Canada 25 years ago after Saddam Hussein's secret police executed his brother and arrested several friends because of their membership in a Shiite-based opposition movement. After the fall of the Hussein regime in 2003 he returned to his hometown of Baquba, located northeast of Baghdad in Diyala Province, and energetically engaged in public life. He joined the faculty of Yarmouk University, an important institution of higher education in the region that educates young men and women in several academic and professional disciplines. He put his engineering skills to work — literally — by starting a consulting-design firm. He was elected to the Baquba city council, and emerged as an eloquent spokesman for the new, democratic forces taking root in his city. He was deeply loved by his extended family and well respected by his neighbors.

“I will not leave Iraq.”

He was also fearless. He knew that his role as a public figure extolling democratic reform placed him in danger, yet he refused to curtail his university teaching, his political activity, or his commitment to the welfare of his nation. He repeatedly voiced his determination during several meetings in the autumn of 2004 with this writer at a U.S. Army installation in Baquba. To his family he insisted, “I will not leave Iraq. I want to serve my country. And, come what may, I want to be buried here, in my homeland, next to my brother.”

Alas, on December 21, 2004, three armed gunmen shot him several times as he drove away from his home in the neighborhood of Kharnabat. His car violently swerved off the road, skidded into the Saria River, and sank to its watery grave. His death shocked and saddened all who knew him.

The terrorists' brutal murder of Al-Zaidi mirrors their callous disregard for Yarmouk University, where he taught engineering. In the summer of 2004, a knot of militants commandeered a stadium near the campus in order to launch assaults across the city. During the ensuing fighting, the university sustained collateral damage: classrooms walls cracked, ceilings collapsed, laboratories caved in, offices were wrecked, and athletic facilities ruined. The terrorists were wholly responsible for this destruction. They showed no concern for the safety of Iraqi students. They demonstrated no reverence for higher education. They evinced no respect for academic freedom — nor for any of freedom's other manifestations. The light of education, after all, threatens their desire to drag Iraq back to the darkest days of the Hussein era.

Reconstruction & Renaissance

Now, contrast the terrorists' contempt for life and learning with the enlightened approach of the United States Army. The 3RD Brigade Combat Team of the 3RD Infantry Division, whose area of operations in Diyala includes Baquba, is currently renovating Yarmouk University. It is rebuilding an entire wing of one of the main buildings on campus. It is overhauling, repairing, and refitting a major classroom building. It is reequipping scientific laboratories. It is installing more than 60 personal computers in several locations. It is assembling a student internet café. The 3RD BCT is purchasing a new generator to ensure a dependable supply of electricity. It is upgrading and enhancing the campus infrastructure. It is also boosting the regional economy by utilizing local contractors and laborers to carry out this work.

The soldiers of the 3RD Brigade Combat Team supervising the reconstruction of Yarmouk University are American patriots. As such, they are the American counterparts of Talib Al-Zaidi. They should be proud of the work they are doing on behalf of the American people and Iraqi students. Sergeant Rob Ness is one of them. He is an Army Reservist with the 445TH Civil Affairs Battalion out of Mountain View, California, who is now supporting the 3RD BCT as a public-education liaison. In this capacity he works with Army personnel and local education officials on numerous school initiatives. He is coordinating the Yarmouk reconstruction effort, which he places in a wider perspective. “Just like in the United States, universities here occupy the center of intellectual life, social development and local culture,” he wisely points out. “The quicker we help institutions like Yarmouk recover completely from armed conflict, the sooner we'll see Iraq again producing high-caliber graduates in fields like accounting, medicine and engineering. This would be a welcome return to pre-Saddam days, when Iraq's universities generated the top graduates in the Middle East.” Major Steve Warren, the 3RD BCT's public-affairs officer, notes that his units infrastructure redevelopment program in Diyala is rapidly expanding, while Yarmouk is of real significance: “The 3RD BCT's projects now number over 500, representing an investment of over 500 million dollars. Yarmouk University is particularly important to us, because we are looking to the universities to find government employees with new ways of thinking.”

By promoting the renaissance of higher education — in Diyala and throughout the country — the American Army and other U.S. government agencies are achieving tactical and strategic success in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Revitalized institutions of higher learning are chalking up improvements in academic fields — jurisprudence, political economy, agricultural engineering, environmental science, medicine, computer science, business administration, and international relations, for instance — that stagnated under the Hussein regime but are now crucial to the transformation of Iraqi society. In the process, universities are once again contributing to the achievement of national goals, including the establishment of the rule of law, the consolidation of democratic institutions, the promotion of economic development, support for medical and scientific research, and the extension of women's rights.

School Is a Battlefield

By the same token, we know that universities constitute a crucial battlefield in the war of ideas across the Middle East. Iran is one example. Its hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, began his political career as a student activist during the Khomeini revolution of 1979 and may have played a role in the takeover of the U.S. embassy. His recent spate of anti-Israel demonstrations in Tehran were populated by university students. Coalition Forces are forestalling a similar radicalization of college campuses in Iraq. This includes the 3RD BCT of the 3RD ID, through its support not only for Yarmouk University, but for other institutions in its area of operations, including the University of Diyala, Baquba Technical Institute, and the Baquba Teachers Institute for Women. It is constructing a positive vision of higher education that is directly contributing to victory.

The Yarmouk project has been underway for several months and is now 75-percent complete. Talib Al-Zaidi played a significant part in its early planning stages. Its imminent completion will be a fitting testimony to his patriotism. So, too, is another initiative being spearheaded by patriotic Americans citizens and two private organizations in the United States. The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies is a counter-terrorist think tank based in Washington, D.C. Over the past year its undergraduate-student fellows, who are found on campuses across the country, solicited donations to support the rebuilding of Yarmouk University. A key partner in this endeavor is Spirit of America, a volunteer organization that raises money for reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan through its website portal and its national network of concerned citizens.

The FDD/Spirit of America joint-fundraising campaign has been very successful. The two groups, their student fellows and their donors have collected more than $24,000. The money is being used for two main purposes. First, Yarmouk University is receiving a fully equipped, state-of-the-art English-language laboratory. It includes workstations for students, a main console for professors, English-language textbooks, educational CDs and DVDs, a computer projector and screen, a television, a DVD player, several computers and accessories, and ancillary maintenance tools and spare parts. Second, the funds will outfit and equip a new chemistry lab, with scientific instruments, supplies for experiments, chemical baths, sinks, and tables.

These new facilities will have many positive effects. They will foster learning and education at the university; promote the study of English, which will improve communications between Iraqi students and their American counterparts; enhance the study of science in a country that yearns to catch up with the rest of the world; establish links between Iraqi and American colleges; consolidate democracy in Iraq via support for an institution of higher education; and demonstrate the goodwill of the American people.

But that is not all. Yarmouk University recently announced that the language and chemistry laboratories will be named in honor of Talib Al-Zaidi. These gifts from American citizens and the United States Army will thus honor the legacy of an Iraqi patriot. They will also stand as testaments to how we are winning the war against terrorism, one university student at a time.

— Joseph Morrison Skelly, a college professor in New York City, recently completed a tour of duty in Baquba with the 411TH Civil Affairs Battalion of the United States Army Reserves, in support of the 3RD BCT of the 3RD ID.