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A "campaign of violence" is being waged against Iraqi academics, according to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which has called for international solidarity and action to protect the researchers.

"We cannot stand by and watch the custodians of Iraq's culture and learning be threatened, abducted or murdered," said the organisation's director-general Koïchiro Matsuura in a 5 April press release.

UNESCO says 170-180 Iraqi academics had been killed since 2003, but the true figure could be much higher.

The Belgium-based anti-war group, Brussells Tribunal, has compiled a list of 220 murdered academics and says hundreds more are missing and that thousands have been driven into exile.

It says nobody has arrested in connection with the murders, and that they appear to be non-sectarian.

Matsuura said Iraq has a long tradition of academic excellence. "By targeting those who hold the keys to Iraq's reconstruction and development, the perpetrators of this violence are jeopardising the future of Iraq and of democracy," he said.

Malik Alasmar, an Iraqi researcher based at the University of Ghent in Belgium, welcomes the call to protect Iraq scientists but says the security situation must be controlled before that can happen.

Alasmar told SciDev.Net that university students are also being targeted and that thousands of scientists have fled Iraq because of the instability that followed the US-led invasion in 2003.

The next steps towards re-establishing science in Iraq, he says, would be to rebuild the country's universities and research institutes, and to reintegrate Iraqi researchers into the international scientific community.

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