See Inside January 2007

Seeing Stars in Iraq

Restoring wrecked observatory may boost Iraqi science

Erbil, Iraq--High in the mountains of northern Iraq's Kurdistan Autonomous Region stands the empty shell of what would have been a world-class astronomical observatory. In 1973 President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr ordered the construction of the $160-million observatory of three telescopes. Once completed, it would have been the only major observatory in the Middle East. But positioned on a strategic mountaintop less than 50 kilometers from the border with Iran, the observatory's radio telescope dish and optical telescope domes became targets, first in 1985 by Iranian missiles and then in 1991 by U.S.-led forces in the Persian Gulf War.

Atop the 2,127-meter-high Mount Korek, the observatory elicits a mix of emotions. The setting is spectacular, with expansive vistas of mountains and valleys. The facilities, however, show the effects of battle and 20 years of neglect. Debris and the detritus of war litter the buildings; several mortar rounds lie unused in the smaller telescope's dome. Still, the structures appear to be readily repairable.

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