The students debated whether Iraq could be held together, yet with one exception, they preferred a unified country with a federal structure. Despite their angst, the discussion offered fascinating clues about how Iraq might still remain whole.
"I came here to learn more about other cultures," said Israa, a Shiite who studies math at the University of Baghdad (many female Iraqi students major in science). She covers up by choice, wearing long skirts or tights under a smart tailored tunic or jacket, and plans on a career in architectural engineering. But Israa complained that if she wants to talk about tolerance toward Christians or Jews back home, people there "think other religions will go to hell."
"It's wonderful the way Americans love each other, but we Iraqis can't live together," she said as we shared plates of hummus and baba ghanoush in my apartment. "It's impossible. I give up."
Haydar, a medical student from the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk whose family has Shia Turkmen and Kurdish Sunni roots, was also frustrated by the limits to Iraqi tolerance: "I can do and say what I want here, but if I speak my mind in Iraq, I could get killed."
Not surprisingly, the Kurds were more optimistic about their future. "It's totally different in Kurdistan," said Ayaz, who is studying business administration at the American University of Iraq at Sulaimani, a private university on the American model. "Kurdistan is open to all." Indeed, the Kurdish regional government has welcomed not only 200,000 refugees from neighboring Syria, but hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Sunnis, Christians, and others fleeing the mayhem in the Mosul area, where radical Sunni Islamists have proclaimed an Islamic caliphate.
Though Kurds have internal quarrels, their strong sense of ethnic nationalism trumps any concerns over religion. That solidarity also makes them far less vulnerable to pressures from Iraq's neighbors, notably Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, which conduct a proxy war in the rest of Iraq by backing different sects.
Ayaz believes Kurds should press for independence. The others, including his Kurdish compatriot Shadi, a medical student from Erbil, argued that it was preferable for Iraq to stay together as a federated state with Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish regions, and Baghdad as a special district. Shahad, a Shiite from Baghdad and future accountant, accepted this idea reluctantly. "It is the only way to stop the killing," she said.
Iraq's constitution provides a path to such a federal structure, but its politicians have never been able to work it out peacefully, raising questions about whether regional autonomy can stop the violence. On the contrary, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has centralized power in his own hands.
So it was particularly interesting to hear the student from the contested city of Kirkuk speak about its regional governor, Najmaldin Kareem. This Kurdish doctor-turned-politician has managed to reconcile the city's mix of ethnic Kurds and Turkmen, along with Shiite and Sunni Arabs, who had been at one another's throats. "When Dr. Najmaldin came in, he made a lot of changes and provided services to all the people," Haydar said. "He would call in political leaders from all factions. He built trust."
And that seemed to be the lesson of the discussion: good leadership - and all the students agreed there was none in Baghdad - could reconcile differences. Even if the contentious Maliki is replaced in parliamentary deliberations that are supposed to choose a new prime minister in the coming days, it won't make any difference if the new leader can't reach out to all ethnicities and sects. Indeed, the students argued about whether the country could be held together only by a "good dictator," a model a couple of them desperately hoped for, while others scoffed that no such animal had ever existed.
But one more important point emerged: the difference between the younger generation of educated Iraqis and their parents. These students, who agree on Iraq's desperate need for a more tolerant culture, hope to stay in touch with one another and with past graduates of the program so they can brainstorm new ideas for Iraq.
"My project," said Shadi, "is to bring Iraqi students of different backgrounds and religions together so we can get a chance to know each other, probably in Kurdistan because it is the safest place." There, he said, they could talk about principles of democracy and minority rights, and maybe create a pressure group for a better Iraqi future.
Shadi hopes to go into politics. The question is whether this group and other youths who share its values can ever attract enough Iraqis to create a critical mass.