Egypt, Meet Kurdistan: American University of Iraq

In the last few days, demonstrations have spread beyond Egypt and Yemen not only to Bahrain but into Iraq--most notably in the semi-autonomous northern region of Kurdistan. Dozens were wounded and several died after police shot at a crowd of protesters in the city of Sulaimaniya. The demonstrators were chanting slogans against high unemployment and pervasive corruption.

Few have heard of Sulaimaniya, but it is a crucial place for the US and its allies to take a stand. Not just to take a stand, though--to plant roots for the long term.

For more on this, you may wish to read a new investigative report at our website,, about a little-known institution, the American University of Iraq, Sulaimaniya. Conceived of by a group that included Kurds who had pushed for the invasion of Iraq for a decade and a neoconservatives clustered around the Rumsfeld-Cheney axis, the university has strong links to the oil industry which itself has a big stake in oil-rich Kurdistan. It has promoted itself as being able to produce graduates who can provide local staffers for that industry. George Bush's friend and financial backer Ray Hunt was awarded a giant drilling contract for Kurdistan.

The prime minister of the Kurdistan region, Barham Salih, doubles as chairman of American University's board of trustees. He ran the Kurdish lobbying effort in Washington since shortly after the first Gulf War. Salih raised $55 million for the university in 2009, purportedly through private sources, who have not been named. And Salih, an oil engineer who became fabulously wealthy, has promised an additional $100 million, mainly to fund the construction of the new campus. Jalal Talabani, president of Iraq, another AUI-S board member, reportedly personally donated $65 million (where that money came from is uncertain).

Some students and former staff express skepticism about the pedagogical approach, which appears to be a kind of experiment in cultural values of the sort promoted by William Bennett, Lynne Cheney and their associates in the U.S. during the Reagan years. The long-serving former chancellor, Joshua Mitchell, had received career funding from the right-wing Olin and Bradley Foundations, and the long-serving, now former provost, John Agresto, who initially served as education advisor to the American occupation, was a high-ranking official of the National Endowment for the Humanities under Lynne Cheney at the height of the American battle over cultural values. Now, American University of Iraq has been accredited--at warp speed--by an accrediting organization launched by Ms. Cheney. One of the assigned textbooks, America: The Last Best Hope, written by the conservative cultural theorist William Bennett, casts the American frontier experience as laudable and even heroic; one student I spoke with expressed frustration at what he felt was the book's disparagement of native Americans. Publishers Weekly describes the book as "history put to use as inspiration rather than serving to enlighten or explain..." and recommends it as best suited to high school students.

How those recent demonstrations in Sulaimaniya will play out--and whether they will have any repercussions for the university so closely tied to both the invasion and the Kurdish leadership--is far from clear. But in any case, Americans concerned about how the name of their country is being represented have a reason to take a closer look at this institution.

[Read more here]

Editor's note: This post has been modified from its original form