Iraq's schools were desperately overcrowded last year. This autumn, the failure of a government reconstruction program has made matters worse.
In May, construction firms paid by Iraq's Education Ministry began tearing down hundreds of old school buildings across the country under contracts requiring the companies to build bigger schools.
But the new schools have not been built and now the ministry says it doesn't have funds for new buildings. The full extent of the blunder became apparent this week with the start of Iraq's new school year.
In Diyala Province alone, more than 100 schools were destroyed since May without being replaced. One town in the province, Al-Adhlm, lost 28 schools.
Ahmed is a 15-year-old ninth grader who attended Noah Secondary School in Al-Adhlm last year. Now his school must share a building with elementary students and another school that was demolished:
"We were able to attend school in our own building last year, but they destroyed it," he says. "So now we are forced to attend classes at a primary school nearby. But it is so crowded that we have to go to classes in three shifts -- morning, midday and late afternoon. My courses last from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. Each class lasts only 30 minutes and it is difficult to understand anything. We hope they will rebuild our school soon."
Mohammed Ibrahim, a local administrator in Al-Adhlm, believes the problem is the result of dubious links between construction contractors and Iraq's government.
"We know there was a decision by the Education Ministry to destroy the schools and rebuild them," he says. "Unfortunately, they weren't rebuilt. Now our children do not have school buildings. Many are forced to go to classes outside. We need a solution to this problem of schools that were demolished by companies with ties to the ministry."
Education Ministry spokesman Walid Hussein blames overcrowding on an enrollment surge, He maintains that funds for new buildings should be paid for by provincial governments.
"We hope there will be a national campaign with all the provincial councils participating -- allocating a large portion of money from their own budgets to build schools," he says. "We have a problem that is getting bigger every year because every year we have more students. This year, we have more than 1,250,000 new students in first grade alone. Only 250,000 students will graduate from high school. But we don't have more school buildings. The new students require 700 to 800 new school buildings."
But parliamentary rapporteur Mohammed al-Khalidi insists that it is wrong for the Education Ministry to sidestep the issue of demolished schools:
"We've received many complaints about destroyed school buildings," he says. "We have 107 destroyed school buildings just in Diyala Province. We've asked the parliamentary speaker to investigate this. It is important to parliament and also the people of Diyala. We will work hard to discover the reasons for this massive failure. Of course, we hold the Education Ministry responsible for what happened to schools across the country."
In Baghdad, about 150 school buildings have been torn down since last year.
Nasrin Hadi, a member of the Baghdad Provincial Council's Education Committee, says the schools weren't rebuilt because a Cypriot subcontractor failed on its contractual obligations after tearing down the old buildings.
Hadi says those contracts were funded by the Education Ministry and signed through a state firm called Al-Fao, a branch of the Ministry of Construction and Housing.
'A Humanitarian And Educational Catastrophe'
Ahmed Rashid, education adviser to Baghdad's Provincial Council, says most Baghdad classrooms were designed for 25 to 30 students but now have more than 80. He says some classrooms have up to 120 students.
Rashid estimates Baghdad needs 3,000 new school buildings to accommodate the overflow.
Nine-year-old Sara Majid, a third-grader in Baghdad's Al-Hurriya neighborhood, worries that her education is suffering.
"Last year I couldn't even find a place to sit because my class was so crowded, and our teacher put three students at desks meant for two," she says. "Now it is so crowded and so noisy that when the teacher is talking, I can't hear and I don't understand the lesson. During breaks between classes, it is too crowded in the place we should wash our hands. Even on the playground, it is so crowded we can't play."
According to Abdel al-Hussein Abtan, a parliamentarian from Najaf, hundreds of schools were demolished in his governorate without being replaced. He says Education Minister Muhammad Tamim should visit those sites to see "a humanitarian and educational catastrophe."
Meanwhile, the Education Committee of Iraq's parliament is blaming the Education Ministry and has asked Tamim to explain why hundreds of demolished schools have not been rebuilt.
Written by RFE/RL's Ron Synovitz, with reporting by Radio Free Iraq's Simira Balay and Ghassan Ali in Prague, as well as by Sami Ayyash in Diyala and Saad Kamil in Baghdad