As the number of Iraqi civilian casualties skyrockets, academics in general and scientists in particular are emerging as an unlikely group of targets. Around 200 have already been killed, and evidence shows that violence has been escalating. In April, scholars who convened at the Madrid International Conference on the Assassination of Iraqi Academics reported that the number of academics killed in 2005 totaled more than the numbers in 2003 and 2004 combined. Soon after, the journal Science authenticated (subscription required) a widely circulated anonymous pamphlet containing a hit list of 461 scientists targeted for murder.
So who are the hit men? "Many things are being said," says Zohair Mohsen, a former director of scientific relations for the nonprofit Arab Science and Technology Foundation. "One is that outside powers are trying to liquidate these people so Iraq will not have the potential to develop scientific research in the future," he says. "Another is that they are being killed because they are related to Saddam's regime. But many of the victims had nothing to do with Saddam—the people who study literature, many of the chemists." Other theories suggest that the kidnappings and killings are motivated by money or sectarian hostility or are being carried out by secret militias funded by Iran or the United States.
Regardless of the motivations, the killings have far-reaching repercussions. "We have lost the healthy atmosphere necessary for the advancement of science," says a former University of Baghdad professor who prefers to remain anonymous. "The scientific attitude among people has been lost, and consequently we see the dominance of superstitions and the abuse of religion."
Nearly 85 percent of Iraq's universities have been severely damaged or destroyed. Looting has emptied laboratories, and many scientists who remain in Iraq are hobbled by security concerns. "What's happening now is chaos," Mohsen says. "If you don't agree with somebody, you can get a weapon and kill them."
Murders targeting Iraq's intelligentsia climbed dramatically from 2003 to 2005.
Iraq harbors a wealth of humanity's past beneath its surface, and it all may be at risk.
Read about the destruction—and attempted rescue—of Iraq's wetlands.