The American University of Iraq opened its doors Friday in Sulaimaniyah, hosting a ceremony led by Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, and attended by US ambassador Ryan Crocker, Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh, KRG Prime Minister Nachirvan Barzani, former Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawi, and other officials.
This semester, the American University will enroll its inaugural class of students for an initial year of English-language training. The program of study is structured much like its long-established sister schools in Beirut or Cairo, whereby students spend one year in intensive English-language training, and a further four years following their primary course of study.
The university recently announced the enrollment of its first student, Bayad Jamal Ali, a resident of Sulmaini, who plans to study business administration so he can help an already successful family enterprise.
Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh has been a driving force behind the establishment of the institution. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports Saleh had dreamed of building a Western-style American University of Iraq since he returned decades ago from studying at a university in the UK. "I often wondered why Iraqis and my Kurdish compatriots could not have access to the type of education that I had," he says.
According to the Chronicle, Saleh didn't waste much time after the downfall of Saddam Hussein. Last summer Salih hired consulting group McKinsey & Company to draft a business plan and assembled a high-profile board of trustees that includes Fouad Ajami, a prominent Middle East-studies professor at the Johns Hopkins University; Kanan Makiya, a Middle East-studies professor at Brandeis University; and Iraqi leaders Ayad Allawi and Jalal Talabani.
Though some criticized the decision to locate the university in Sulaimaniyah, occasionally intimating the intent was so Saleh--who hails from the city--could line his own pockets, Saleh contends the location was determined by the relative stability of the area as compared to the rest of the country.
The cost of admission and fees run about $5,000 per semester, which puts the education out the the financial reach of most Iraqis, though the university plans to offer scholarships and loans to make the expense more manageable for some students.
University officials expects the university to have a yearly enrollment 1,000 students by 2011 and 5,000 by 2021.
While the university opening ceremonies offered a good reason for Iraqi and Kurdish leaders to converge on Sulaimaniyah, it has also provided cover for discussions between former prime minister Ayad Allawi and Kurdish leaders.
Allawi has recently ratcheted up the criticism directed at prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, accusing him of being incapable of leading the country to reconciliation, raising expectations that the former leader may be angling to reclaim his position of eminence. Allawi has begun to focus PR and lobby efforts at the US public and government, while he works behind the scenes to make inroads with other Iraqi leaders.
Allawi told reporters as he arrived in Sulaimaniyah airport on Thursday that the intent of his trip was to "consolidate the relations between the Iraqi National List and the Kurdistan Alliance."
During the press conference Friday, Talabani insisted the purpose of the meeting was simply to gather the board of the new American University, of which both he and Allawi are members, though he also said he planned to hold a press conference in coming days to discuss the latest political developments in Iraq and the Kurdish region.